Cities have always been places where different worlds collide, and in Jakarta vastly different urban experiences can be separated by as little as just a few metres of public space. In Karet-Setiabudi, a busy district in the heart of the capital, a single stretch of road just a few metres wide marks this boundary. On one side a world of towering skyscrapers, monuments to the country’s economic transformation and the power of global capital, on the other a dense network of leafy avenues and crowded alleyways, where a community of small business owners demonstrate the resilience and ingenuity required to thrive in one of the world’s largest cities.
While Jalan Komando Raya, the street in question, might indicate something of a division between that which is strictly formalised and that which is not, the very global and the entirely Indonesian, in reality it is much more of a meeting place. If cities are indeed the places where worlds collide, then here ‘collision’ means the friendly exchange of trade more often than the crashing together of opposing forces.
Even so, Jakarta’s ongoing development continues to put pressure on the kampung, walled in on every side by high-rise apartments, upmarket shopping malls and ever-expanding traffic infrastructure. The challenges of a rapidly developing city demand constant adaptation and innovation by a long-established community to preserve their businesses and way of life.
Recently a new challenge for ‘Mama’ Mia, the local administrative coordinator of one of Kampung Karet’s sub-divisions (RT.02) and her community of micro-entrepreneurs has emerged as a priority, and raised fundamental questions about their place in the city they call home. A number of new developments in the area now seek to assert ownership of the urban space, placing Jalan Komando Raya at the centre of a dispute over the real meaning and proper function of a public road.
Often identified as a cause of Jakarta’s perennial traffic problems for their tendency to occupy public space, PKL or five-legged traders, vendors conducting business from mobile carts, nevertheless play a crucial role in urban life - using their unique business model and local knowledge to provide a range of freshly-prepared culinary delights just where it is most needed (for full details of this strategy see RRJ reports). Having once served the legions of workers employed on the construction sites, the local traders now find themselves threatened with displacement by those very projects they helped to realise.
Improving vehicle access to the new developments by clearing the street of potential obstacles remains a priority for the owners, but what about the dozens of small business, who rely on this strategic meeting place for their income, and their customers? At lunchtime the pedestrian traffic increases dramatically as hundreds of office workers pour onto the street in search of food, drink and a break from the air-conditioned towers on one side. For the traders, space is key. Too far from the offices and they risk losing customers; plenty are reluctant to walk too far under the midday sun.
For Mama Mia and her community, the prospect of losing such a strategic business opportunity demanded swift action and creative thinking. Within weeks of being notified that new policies could threaten their businesses, the traders had agreed on a potential solution - they would establish a new trading location in the interior of their neighbourhood; a culinary location to be known as “Jalan Warga” or “Citizen’s Street.”
Under Mia’s diligent leadership plans were drawn up for the new location, a narrow passage between two parking areas, an architect sourced and the site assessed to establish viability. Policies to manage the space, maintain cleanliness and register individual traders were created. Though far from ideal, the traders knew that they were faced with few options; successfully resisting the policies of major development projects would be unlikely in the long-run. How would their businesses adapt to the new space, away from the main intersections? Would they still be profitable? How could they ensure their customers would still find them, even if they decided to make the extra journey?
Although initially supportive, local authorities have since withdrawn support for the proposal, frustrating Mama Mia and her community. The irony of abandoning a public road in order to establish a “citizens street” is not lost on the residents of RT.02, but with plans stalled for the time being their future has become increasingly uncertain. “This is our only option,” announced one of the PKL at a recent community forum where the issue was raised, “We don’t have anything else.”
Mama Mia takes her responsibilities seriously, and her community’s interests are her top priority. “I don’t know what to do,” she told us after the forum was over, “We want a place for the people who live here. We want to show that we can take care of our neighbourhood; we keep it clean and we make sure the road is clear after the day’s work is done, but they still want the traders to go. The area we want to set up as a new location won’t disrupt traffic at all, and even though it’s not perfect we don’t have any other plan to keep the small businesses in operation.”
With so much uncertainty in the air it would be easy for the traders to feel lost, but they trust that there is at least one person who will do everything possible to protect their interests. Mama Mia and her community are just one example of the flexibility, determination and coordination it takes to succeed on your own terms in a city which is constantly changing, to maintain a sense of identity and a way of life. No one can say what will happen in the coming weeks and months, but we can be sure that the forces of two different worlds will continue to shape this small corner of the Indonesian capital.