Once resplendent facades sagging in the tropical heat and empty shells of colonial-era buildings are depressing signs that the old town of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, once considered the “Jewel of Asia,” has suffered decades of neglect.
Palm trees grow through crumbling windows in what was once the center of power for Indonesia’s Dutch colonial rulers, and many buildings that are still intact lie empty, stained grey by fumes from hordes of passing traffic.
However, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, who has energetically taken on the task of transforming one of the world’s most chaotic metropolises, has a new plan to overhaul the old town and attract more tourists.
“It has to be done, otherwise it is going to deteriorate,” said Goenawan Mohamad, a well-known Indonesian writer and member of the group set up to regenerate the old town. “It’s about time.”
Nevertheless, there is much skepticism.
Other plans have failed and some fear that even if the latest makes progress, developers might transform the area into a “Disneyland” full of garish malls rather than a well-preserved heritage area.
The old town, in modern-day north Jakarta, was once a global trading center, where merchants would arrive to buy and sell goods from across the Indonesian archipelago, particularly spices sought after in Europe.
With its whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets, the area for centuries made up almost the whole of Jakarta, then known as Batavia, and was called the “Jewel of Asia” by European sailors arriving after long sea voyages.
Jakarta has expanded to become a city with a population of about 10 million, better known now for its traffic jams than historic buildings, and the old town has fallen into disrepair, out of favor with the city’s well-heeled residents.
Some small sections have been preserved.
Cobbled “Fatahillah” square, the heart of the old town and the most visited part, is in good condition and is packed out with vendors selling trinkets to the small number of passing tourists.
On the square, and also well-preserved, are the former city hall and a museum showcasing Indonesian puppets.
However, outside this small area most of the buildings are in a state of serious decay.
Widodo — who was elected last year — and his supporters hope their initiative might at last return some colonial splendor to Jakarta.
They believe their plan stands a better chance of success than previous ones as they have created an umbrella organization with what they believe is the right mix of people to oversee the regeneration.
The consortium includes private firms, a former government minister and a heritage group.
Crucially, they have the strong backing of the Jakarta authorities, who have pledged a 150 billion rupiah (US$12.5 million) budget for the regeneration.
Previous attempts suffered either from a lack of coordination between numerous different players, or the opposite — just one group, but a lack of resources, said Lin Che-wei, chairman of the consortium’s board of advisors.
There are signs that work is under way on some buildings in the area, and a visitor center and exhibition space for contemporary art are due to open next month.
The consortium intends to renovate 85 historic buildings over five years, a program it says will create 11,400 jobs.
However, some have expressed fears overenthusiastic development might destroy the old town’s charms and transform it into an area full of ugly modern buildings and shopping malls.