Updated: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 12:11 | By Agence France-Presse

Indonesian capital seeks to revive crumbling old town

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.

Indonesian capital seeks to revive crumbling old town

A 1919 office building of the London Sumatra Plantation company, which is still being used by the company, pictured in Kesawan, central commercial district of Medan in Jakarta, on March 8, 2006 - by Bhimanto Suwastoyo

Palm trees grow through crumbling windows in what was once the centre 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.

But Jakarta's popular 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 scepticism. 

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.

- Restoring colonial splendour -

The old town, in modern-day north Jakarta, was once a global trading centre, 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 some 10 million, better known now for its traffic jams than historic buildings, and the old town has fallen into disrepair, out of favour 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.

But 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 splendour to Jakarta.

They believe their plan stands a better chance of success than previous ones as they have created an umbrella organisation 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 ($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 centre and exhibition space for contemporary art are due to open next month.  

The consortium intends to renovate 85 historic buildings over five years, a programme it says will create 11,400 jobs.

- Disneyland fears -

However, some have expressed fears over-enthusiastic development might destroy the old town's charms and transform it into an area full of ugly modern buildings and shopping malls.

"Kota Tua is a city, it's not Disneyland," said Ella Ubaidi, owner of a colonial-era building in the old town, using the Indonesian name to refer to the area.

Her apprehensiveness stems from the profile of the consortiums' board of trustees, some of whom are from large Indonesian property companies.

There is also a lack of enthusiasm among the public.

Some regard the old town, a district built by colonisers, as a symbol of repressive rule, and there has been little interest among Jakarta's citizens in maintaining it since the Dutch left Indonesia in the late 1940s.

Nevertheless, the plan's backers are optimistic. They believe they can attract more tourists to Jakarta, which lags behind other Southeast Asian capitals in numbers of foreign visitors, as they restore the old town to its former glory.

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