The Plight and Plea of Menteng: an Epitome of Jakarta’s Future?

Standar

Marco Kusumawijaya, Jakarta

Menteng is no longer a conservation area. This is not a statement from legal point of view, of course, but from the reality in the field. The irony is exactly that legally it is. The conservationist perspective has so long prevented it from being looked at its real, basic problem: How to maintain a comfortable living in the city’s centre. What is happening there is first of all not a destruction of a shared colonial heritage, but simply a destruction of a good quality residential neighbourhood. It is an epitome of what is happening to the whole Jakarta, as it is being turned into a gigantc machine to earn a living, with little left for living itself.

The Jakarta Post has recently timely reported increasing conversion of residences into business establishments, with all the vices and complaints it has generated, in two most interesting residential neighbourhoods in Jakarta—Kebayoran Baru and Menteng—despite the fact that they are legally protected as residential areas and conservation sites of significant heritage values.

Some houses in Menteng are quitely converted, without any sign of even the names of the establishments, for example a spa and salon on Jalan Situbondo, and a boutique of important brand on Jalan Purworejo, as they know that they are against the regulations that are ironically proclaimed on boards on sidewalks nearby. The thing is that for sure they cater to the real need of the rich and famous in the neighbourhood. So, what to do? Should we live with the hypocrisy of ignoring the breach of regulation? Or should we rationally find compromise to it? The question is how to make a compromise not the first card on a domino effect that will eventually bring the whole Menteng down.

It is no longer about conservation, but simple residential quality of taste.
It is no longer about arguing for conservation—it is too late—but simply for quality environment with tasteful residences, which are increasingly replaced by cheap and disdainful-looking buildings like those in Pluit, such as repulsively overwhelming at Jalan Sawo, for example. Here, the whole idea of Menteng streetscape is gone, with even its sidewalks shamefully privatised.

All possible planning exercises have been made with its physical conservation as their main focus. This good intention seems to have paved its very way towards destruction of its more basic importance: a quality residential site for living. The conservationists have missed its urban planning dimensions. Widening of Kuningan bridge that will bring more traffic into it, and use of its residential streets as “U-turns”, a pretentious park with multilevel parking-garage serving cheap hotel and other more buildings with higher Floor Area Ratio (FAR) on Cokroaminoto Street that will change the street from being a local service area to a city-wide service area, will soon initiate the domino effect to the whole Menteng. And, how can we expect retired pensioners to maintain their houses literally condemned as heritage without any subsidy and tax incentives? The paradox is that the better one up-keeps his or her house in Menteng, the bigger chance it is for the house to be condemned into a higher conservation category. Some houses were therefore left to rot. And when it has rotten enough, permit is “requested” to build a new building on it, most of the time much bigger and uglier that the original.

One arguably successful restored heritage building is the Kunstkring or Gedung Imigrasi. It has been re-purchased and restored with public money, but now lost its publicness completely. It is now a stylish (?) restaurant run by a company that we never know how it was chosen. I am particularly upset by the fact that the plant vendors under the overhead rail tracks at the eastern border of the restaurant have been partly evicted to make space for parking lots.

On the positive side, strangely, there have been emerging new restaurants along Jalan Cikini over the past few years, adapting the old shophouses elegantly. There is a sense of reviving the old street as a high street as it had been meant to be in the colonial time. These new establishments find the art-deco architecture of the shophouses serving their clients quite well. Perhaps, because it conforms to the taste of the upcoming yuppies. In any case, it just happens, luckily for the better. No policy is required, it is the invisible hand of the market working.

We are also witnessing more high-rise towers popping up in Menteng, for example at Jalan Cikditiro. Again, it raises question: how could they have been permitted? On an other side of the neighbourhood, on Jalan Sumenep, the city’s government itself keeps building more permanent structures on canal bank that is supposed to be a green belt. First it was the stores of aquarium fish and decorative plants, then it was a branch office of the city’s agriculture and fishery department, and most recently a mosque. All shamelessly have their ugly backs on the canal, with waste water draining pipes protruding into it, and all visible from the other sde of the canal.

I have just described the misfortune of Menteng. If Menteng, which is supposed to be the core of quality that the capital Jakarta must have and must maintain, is heading towards the wrong direction, what can we expect happening to other parts of Jakarta, or to the whole of Jakarta for that matter? Is it going to compete in vain with the suburbs, some of which are indeed superbly upkept, even if one may not like its fake urbanity?

The fact is that the population of Kecamatan (subdistrict) Menteng from 2001 to 2006 shows a decreasing trend, after a brief surge in 2002, when the population is the highest at 98,123, up from 73,546 in 2001. From 2004 (80.404) the population decreased consistently to 79.430 in 2005, and 77,835 in 2006. Graphically the trend is parallel with overall night-time population of Jakarta, which is also consistently decreasing from 8,374,005 in 2001, to 7,554,761 in 2006, after a brief surge in 2004 (election year!) at 9,341,866. All together, the population of South and Central Jakarta is also decreasing in absolute terms, while the that in Jakarta’s surrounding peripheral suburbs and districts is increasing dramatically. The traffic jam in South and Central Jakarta is caused, therefore, not by the increasing population inside Jakarta, but exactly by the increasing population in its surrounding suburbs and districts, that swarm into Jakarta in the morning and leave it in the early evening as commuters.

Will the whole Jakarta’s population decrease, making the “black hole” expanding from South and Central Jakarta to eventually engulf the whole Jakarta? The emerging high-rise appartment buildings may help a bit, but only really for the upper class, which is never known for their contribution to real urban life on the ground floors of any city.**

Following this article we will see some of Marco’s thoughts for further discussion.

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