Those who have spent most of their lives in Jakarta may feel the changes around them to be gradual, a slow and perhaps even unnoticeable evolution of their environment. One may have a myopic perspective to these changes, focusing on the immediate inconveniences such developments may cause to day-to-day life, rather than noticing the macro-transformation of the city and what it will mean for the future. In truth, Jakarta has come a long way, and perhaps it may take an outside observer to appreciate this.
lived in Jakarta my entire childhood, and after a brief stint in the UK for university, returned with newly opened eyes. Jakarta, back in 2013, was unbearable, especially for a twenty-something ‘fresh off the boat’ and used to life elsewhere. Was it always this bad? I used to ask myself, having only fond memories of growing up in the city. I thus likened it to the popular apologue of the frog in the boiling pot: growing up here, the water was boiling around me; returning after three years, I was the frog jumping out, noticing this environment would likely kill me.
So, I did what many Jakartans are doing now. I ran away to Bali, joining my older brother who had clearly gone through his own awakening of consciousness a year earlier! 10 years have since passed, with infrequent and brief visits home.
In that time however, Jakarta has evolved. It has cultured and matured. The growth of the middle-class has been a significant factor, bringing with it creativity and lifestyle that injects the city with a vibrance and essence of a real cosmopolitan centre.
In 2023, having been given the responsibility of handling NOW! Jakarta, I sought to understand my motherland once again. A move which made it quite apparent thatisland life had taken its toll: an urban sojourn has me feeling what Indonesians call, katro. Outdated, or like a ‘villager’. I film every trip on the MRT, ogle at the high-tech homeware stores in the malls, am in a constant state of self-consciousness over what I’m wearing, and am always wide-eyed as I look out across the city skyline from any high rise.
The truth is, I’m impressed. Jakartans may be indifferent or blasé, so used to their urban lifestyles, but I can’t help but think: “This place is pretty liveable, it’s actually cool.”
When I had returned in 2013, this was not the case. Jakarta was in a state of transition, undemocratically servicing specific demographics that made it unsuitable for a young professional just starting out. My hat goes off to those who, unlike me, stayed to carve something for themselves into the city, to gather like-minded friends and put a flag into the ground to announce their arrival.
It is without a doubt that it is this group of people who have shaped the liveability of Jakarta, if not directly (making something themselves), then indirectly (as a target market).
Some of the lifestyle changes I’ve noticed include the huge embrace of sports and fitness, cross-fit clubs and spin classes to yoga centres and running groups, creating a vibrant and active community. Another is this new acceptance of an outdoor lifestyle: the few public parks made by Ahok have fostered new, wholesome activities for local groups. But even at more upscale levels, al fresco venues have become the go-to, with Cork & Screw Country Club to Urban Forest Cipete and of course the highly impressive developments over at PIK. People are walking, they’re strolling under the sun! Unthinkable ten years ago. The latest explosion of pawrents (pet owners) is also a massive change and has fuelled pet-friendly venues and destinations across the city.
The food and beverage scene has always been a main draw of Jakarta, and has continued to grow at all scales, high-end bars and restaurants as the face of the city’s premium experiences; and many innovative, locally-owned venues and brands that Indonesia can and should be proud of. These are signs that we are developing from within, rather than being developed by others.
What’s more, the art scene, music scene (be it classical to electronic), theatre scene, green scene, beer scene, cycling scene, coffee scene, tennis scene and more seem to be healthily self-perpetuating. Sure, these may be shallow observations for many, but together they make Jakarta far more dynamic a city than it has been in previous years, taking it out of the one-dimensional box it has always been perceived.
What is particularly refreshing is the integration of expatriates and Indonesians, with that strict separation finally blurring and a healthy intermingling now a common sight.
Some credit has to be given to the government. The MRT is something I commend, even in its early stages, not just the transportation but also the infrastructure built around certain stations. Together they create a fresh pedestrian experience that links the city in new and interesting ways. To get off at Blok M and explore Taman Literasi Martha Christina Tiahah, m bloc space and the old Blok M restaurants on foot, then to jump on another train and walk around Bundaran HI to get to Plaza Indonesia. It’s just different, and I can see young Indonesians appreciating this accessibility more than anyone.
Has it changed the traffic situation yet? No. But it instills this hopeful feeling that Jakarta is actually ‘on its way’, that the dormant potential the city has is beginning to wake up.
Yet, as Jakarta continues its committed path to modern cosmopolitanism, I hope some focus is paid to appreciating the history too. This is will always be the heart and soul of any city. Colonial buildings should be preserved, old museums refurbished, old eateries or local street food centres improved but celebrated. Institutions and communities must also regenerate to entice younger generations to join and be part of something.
For a city to be really interesting, it should cover the whole spectrum, old and new. Perhaps then Jakarta may even become an actual tourist destination… who knows?
What will happen to Jakarta’s sinking coastline? What will the ‘Big Durian’ become if stripped of its title as capital city? Who knows. For now, despite the many, many challenges which aren’t mentioned here (this is a love letter, after all), it seems that Jakarta is beginning to serve its citizens. So, going back to our frog apologue, though the water continues to boil, perhaps it’s worth easing oneself in, toes, feet, then body. Perhaps it’s become a pot worth boiling in.