Jakarta, Indonesia (part 2)

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the most striking elements of Jakarta as a place was how the co-presence of vast wealth and deep poverty mark the built environment and how people engage with it. This is common in many urban areas around the world, perhaps most intensely in cities in the Global South that are tied to the world economy through many different but intertwined financial, cultural, and social processes. Millions of poor have moved to these cities over the last several decades, forced from the countryside by the industrialization of agriculture and consolidation of farmland (processes central to previous decades’ development interventions) and the lure of new jobs that often did not materialize. Similarly, the mobility of capital and its search for global markets and new centers of production and investment have meant the reshaping of fundamental parts of the urban built environment and social fabric in these same cities. These two processes, the simultaneous but distinct enclaving of the wealthy and expansion of poorer districts (often simply referred to as slums, even if this name doesn’t always fit, as I discuss below), are addressed in a huge range of geographers’ work. I can’t do it justice here, but there is a lot of good research on topics and concepts like splintered urbanism; citizenship and rights amid extreme urban inequalities; security and verticality (i.e., building up instead of out); city branding and urban hierarchies and rankings; and urban ecologies, especially in contexts where planning may be inadequate, lacking, or highly unequal. 

In Jakarta, this has meant the construction of wide boulevards lined with tall steel-and-glass towers housing the offices of international banks and other global or national businesses, air-conditioned shopping malls, and apartment and condominium housing for a growing urban social and economic elite. Directly next to or behind these were the many kampung districts, where the bulk of the city’s residents live. Housing is sometimes but not always self-built, the lanes are narrow (which can help create shade and channel a very welcome breeze on hot days – and they’re all hot days), and basic water and electrical infrastructure may be lacking. I want to be careful not to overgeneralize here – some locals and many international development observers and practitioners consider kampungs to be slums, and identifying and ‘improving’ such urban neighborhoods might seem to be the object of much pro-poor development intervention, but as some observers and locals there explained to me, you can’t just go around telling people they live in slums or expect to provide adequate money and material to upgrade housing for millions of people so easily. I was struck by the co-existence of extreme wealth and poverty in the city, which I had of course seen in cities across North America previously (the number of homeless sleeping under fancy storefront awnings in Seattle and San Francisco sticks out), but here it took different forms because of the specifics of the local conditions. This is not to argue that Jakarta is completely or neatly divided between a small but very wealthy elite and an undifferentiated mass living in absolute poverty. Many people have achieved economic mobility, and can afford well beyond the bare necessities of life, like the latest cell phones and new motorbikes. Indonesia is, after all, now a ‘middle-income country’ and Jakarta is home to something between 9 and 13 million people. But it is a big place and the poverty is intense where it exists – there is little public safety net, and provision of things such as clean water, adequate housing, and reliable electricity often come at relatively high cost for many households. 

As an example of this, in the evenings after I was done with interviews for the day, I often went to two different shopping malls near my hotel. One was on the other side of a kampung district from my hotel, maybe a kilometer or two walk. Inside the three story building were Louis Vuitton and Bugatti outlets, places that even at home in the US or Canada I would not enter for fear that I would break something and have to drain my savings to pay for. Movie theaters showing the latest American, Thai, and Chinese action films were present in both malls, and the second, a bit further away, at the bottom of a much taller building, a few dozen stories high, that was full of offices and expensive condominiums, out of reach financially (and spatially, given the extensive private security presence) for most Jakartans, and likely for me as well. Air-conditioning in both malls made the atmosphere pleasant, and provided a welcome difference from the heat, humidity, and pollution of the city. This could have been anywhere that money lives – these were malls much like those I had been to in suburban Detroit, Toronto, and other western cities. Retail outlets from around the world beckoned to the shopper with expendable income; food courts with American, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Italian, and Indonesian foods provided the illusion of diversity and global culture close at hand; and the enclosed nature of the whole thing could make one forget that the city even existed just outside. But standing on the third floor of the mall looking out the large panes of glass over the kampung neighborhood next door made clear that the rest of the city did indeed exist, and that it was separate from but very close to this shoppers’ paradise in the heart of Jakarta. (I don’t love a mall, as you might be able to tell, but as I told many people back home, strolling through Jakarta in April felt like walking through a hot, wet sponge to me. Rather than sit in my hotel room for hours on end, some time in an air-conditioned mall watching the crowds was fine to pass the time.)

The kampung behind my hotel seemed nice enough, in that the streets were clean, there was a vibrant social life in the many shops and restaurants lining the narrow streets, and there was a lot of new construction going on (as shown above). I would not by any stretch call this a slum, though at least one development practitioner I spoke with said slums can be defined with reference to a number of specific technical measures, such as electricity connection or average width of the street. But I did see more intensive poverty in other parts of the city. Then again, what does it mean to ‘see poverty’? I can’t always tell what poverty looks like at home, let alone what physical forms it may or may not take in a place with which I am largely unfamiliar, such as Jakarta. In fact, this was one of the main takeaways, for me, from my research, that urban poverty is difficult for large international development institutions to identify, because social networks and capital on which urban residents rely are complex. You can’t simply look at the outside of an apartment building or small house in a back street in Jakarta and assume that if it looks a bit ramshackle, it must be because this is poverty. As the urban planning professor who was my guide told me (more on all that in my next post), a lot of people keep their homes’ exteriors simple because to do otherwise might invite suspicion, crime, and tax collectors or other urban officials. This is not to say that poverty is all (or perhaps) never in the eye of the beholder, and is just a more or less free floating idea or construct. I did encounter a group of people who made their homes under a busy bus lane overpass, in sight of both a large university and a new shopping mall. Others make meager livings by fishing recyclables out of the filthy Ciliwung River (this may be turning now with more concerted cleanup efforts), and live in wholly inadequate run-down concrete apartment blocks with no running water. Many come to the city with little, and find it hard to find reliable employment or housing, and their social and family networks are stretched thin by distance and difficulty making ends meet. This is all within a stone’s throw of the shining new high rises, global brands spilling from climate-controlled malls, and the tourist area in the heart of the old colonial center that was once Batavia.

In the end,the close spatial proximity of wealth and poverty was one of the main things that defined Jakarta as a place for me. I would be careful in speculating on the social distance that this proximity may conceal; as an outsider there for only a brief period, but who had extensive discussions with the development planners who inhabited the enclaved of embassies and office towers, I feel safe in saying that seeing the city in its full complexity and the multifaceted lives of its poorer residents is a tough task for anyone, even (and maybe especially) for those experts and planners whose job it is to intervene directly in the urban landscape and the lives of urban residents. In the next and last post on Jakarta, I’ll discuss the insights into urban life that Dr. Jo Santoso gave me, and the busy intersection where my hotel was located.

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