Jakarta's urban heritage gains an audience

History buffs are struggling to preserve a colonial core dating back to 1619, but now in a state of near ruin.

Adek Berry/Newscom
Preservation: Some 80 percent of Jakarta's historic buildings are in poor condition like these in Kota, Jakarta, pictured Dec. 17.

As a history undergraduate, Kartum Setiawan liked nothing better than to walk alone through the streets of this city's crumbling colonial quarters, armed with old maps and a vivid imagination. He pictured the Dutch merchants rowing their boats along the canals. In a cobbled square, he recalled the trams that came in the 19th century, opening up new suburbs to the south.

Today, Mr. Setiawan's day job allows him to keep one foot in the past: He serves as director of a bank museum in Jakarta's historic Kota district. He also runs an amateur history club, one of several that have sprung up in the city in recent years, as interest in urban heritage has grown. Every few months, he organizes a nighttime tour of the district on old-fashioned black bicycles, serenaded by vintage songs playing on a chunky tape recorder.

"This is part of our integrity as a nation, to understand our history. As a way of learning, it's much easier to see objects visually than to read about them in books," he says.

Most visitors to Indonesia's sprawling capital see only the modern trappings of its postwar boom. Jakarta's rich history is harder to unpeel than that of cities like Singapore and Bangkok, where restored colonial-era buildings draw hordes of foreign tourists. In fact, Jakarta is much older: founded in 1619 by Dutch traders who built a walled city called Batavia on the north shore of Java Island. It became the capital of the Dutch East Indies, a far-flung possession that declared independence in 1945.

Modern Jakarta – as it was renamed in 1942 – has turned its back on the past, leaving parts of its colonial core in a state of near ruin. Developers shun these areas, focusing on new neighborhoods in the south of the city. As a result, nearly 80 percent of 284 historic buildings are classified by city authorities as being in poor condition, the Jakarta Post reported.

Blocks from Setiawan's museum is a tantalizing glimpse of the past. Along a stinking canal, rows of colonial-era buildings fester under the afternoon sun. Erected as banks and trading offices by European and Chinese merchants, some are shuttered and dilapidated. Others have rotting wooden balconies and sagging roofs. Grimy minibuses throttle down the streets.

Setiawan and other local history enthusiasts who want to save these long-neglected streets from ruin face a daunting task. City authorities have their hands full providing services to Jakarta's 14 million or more people, many of them struggling to make a living. City Governor Fauzi Bowo has paid lip service to the need to conserve historic sites and attract more tourists, but there's little new money available.

Mr. Bowo has also proposed tapping private foundations for help and inviting creative industries to set up in areas like Kota as a way to revive its fortunes. But that is impossible as long as the building owners have no real incentives to preserve their character, says Tamalia Alisjahbana, executive director of the National Archives Building Foundation.

Heritage laws forbid additions to listed buildings, so private landlords often let their properties fall into disrepair so they can be knocked down, rather than invest in their upkeep. Many other colonial buildings were nationalized after independence, but the government bureaucrats in charge are economic planners, not culture officials, and aren't keen on expensive restorations.

"The Finance Ministry looks at all buildings as financial assets. They don't take into account their historical status," says Ms. Alisjahbana.

Bank Mandiri Museum, where Setiawan works, is different. A private Dutch bank that was nationalized in the 1950s, it was converted into a museum in 2005 by the government-owned Bank Mandiri. Visitors enter an elegant, old-fashioned banking hall of marble-topped counters bathed in light from stained-glass windows. The 1929 building faces an art deco railway station from the same period that's still used.

Setiawan isn't deterred by Kota's decay or the sticky politics of conservation. He sees hope in the busloads of schoolchildren in his museum and the popularity of cultural tours in the area. "People used to pass these buildings without noticing them. After they join our activities, then they really become aware of them," he says.

From only 50 visitors a day when it opened, the museum now sees 200 a day. Setiawan's history club has 5,000 members, mostly students and professionals who pay $5 to join the historical walks. In his spare time, he has begun a master's program in museum studies and is working on a book on Jakarta's old mosques.

One handicap to Indonesian historians who study this heritage is that most colonial archives are stored in Holland and are in written Dutch, a language that few here can speak. In recent years, universities have added Dutch classes for history majors. This reflects a renewed academic interest in colonial times, after decades of government-mandated teachings that emphasized political nation-building.

By delving fully into the past – and taking care of its physical remains – a young nation can start to understand its destiny, says Asep Kambali, who runs another history club. "What is Indonesia? Who are we? Only history can tell us this," he says.

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