Outer Space
Jakarta rising

by Ron Nurwisah
illustration by Huey Weintraub

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Wandering the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, during this summer’s election period, it was easy to see how the citizens of this former dictatorship are now enjoying their public spaces. One clever billboard advertised, “Presidential candidates: it’s alright to have more than one.” On a wall, a graffiti artist had scrawled “Reject militarism: civilian leadership for a civilian government,” a jab at the two former generals running for president in this election. Everywhere you looked you could see campaign posters on walls, hoardings, overpasses and lampposts.

Public space in Indonesia is becoming a space for political expression. It’s an important development, particularly for this country’s urban poor. They do not have easy access to Indonesia’s media and political apparatuses, but they are also those who are more likely to live, work and spend their free time in public. The country’s democratization has suddenly made the urban poor, with their millions of votes, much more important. They are responding by becoming more politically aware, creating groups such as the Urban Poor Consortium and Urban Poor Linkage Indonesia. These groups are now raising awareness about issues such as the demolition of homes by developers and the lack of water, electricity, and public transit infrastructure.

“The middle and upper classes should be ashamed because the people who are really talking about improving public space in the public sphere are the poor,” says Marco Kusumawijaya, one of Indonesia’s leading commentators on public space. Kusumawijaya is an architect by training, and first gained attention as a defender of public space when he took on an advertising company that had illegally chopped down trees lining a highway to make way for their billboards. Today, he regularly contributes to many of Indonesia’s leading magazines and newspapers, on subjects ranging from municipal politics to local birds threatened by urban development.

He feels there are two closely related reasons why Indonesia’s middle class has stayed away from discussing public space. The first is that they have largely stayed out of it, preferring climate-controlled malls, cars and gated communities to streets, which are seen as unpleasant and the realm of the poor by many in the middle class. The second is that history has given them some strong evidence to see politics, and by extension discussions about public space, as inherently unsafe. Former president Suharto’s regime kept a tight grip on politics through widespread surveillance that allowed the regime to quash protest and dissent. Even during its last days, the regime was able to undermine peaceful large-scale protests and spark riots that engulfed parts of Jakarta and Indonesia’s other cities.

These factors have led to most of Indonesia’s middle class feeling that the streets are not only unpleasant but inherently unsafe. Kusumawijaya is aware of this misconception: “There are so many demonstrations and other political expressions in our public spaces and often [they are not done] in very quiet ways, and they are sometimes quite violent. These tend to give an impression that public space is violent.”

More recently, Islamic terrorism has added to that cocktail of fear that keeps many in Indonesia’s affluent middle class from using the nation’s public spaces. Two years ago a bomb in Bali’s tourist-filled Kuta Beach killed over 200 people. Two bombs have rattled Jakarta, including one in September 2004 that killed nine outside the Australian embassy.

But there are signs that Indonesia’s timid middle class is slowly getting involved. Many of Indonesia’s magazines and newspapers feature columns related to public space. And in recent years Kusumawijaya has often been asked to speak on and facilitate discussions about the issue.
The effort to engage all sectors of Indonesia’s population comes at a crucial time. The collapse of Suharto’s dictatorship has resulted in greater local autonomy.

everal cities have taken steps to determine their local needs and solutions, creating plans to tackle issues such as sprawl, overcrowding and development. “Local politics is now serious,” says Kusumawijaya. ”In the past there was virtually no local politics, there was only national politics.”

One dramatic example of this new engagement of local politics was the Urban Poor Consortium’s effective campaign to reveal corruption in the municipal government. The group covered billboards along of one Jakarta’s main streets with banners advertising the wasteful spending of Jakarta’s federally appointed governor on items such as his wardrobe and the renovation of his residence. It got people talking.

Ultimately it is actions like this that Kusumawijaya feels can save Jakarta and Indonesia’s streets. “We are facing a lot of challenges from ourselves culturally but also from the changing political and economic situation. It seems very difficult but a lot of other cities have gone through even more difficult situations.… It has to do with mobilizing popular energy and mobilizing people’s trust and their sense of ownership. We can build beautiful streets and beautiful buildings, but if people don’t care they’ll be destroyed.”


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