From Turning Tricks to Stomping Kickflips in Jakarta

From Turning Tricks to Stomping Kickflips in Jakarta
REUTERS/David W Cerny

What you need to know

Park life in the slums: Why the problems facing the controversial Jakarta governor could hurt the city’s skateboarding community.

When a writer wants to describe Jakarta realistically without being cruel they may venture that Indonesia’s capital is a hard city to love. Elizabeth Pisani says as much about this megalopolis of 10 million or so, in her excellent 2014 book “Indonesia Etc.” Lonely Planet guides use similar phrases.

But last month, loving Jakarta got a little less difficult. The city turned a parcel of land under a raised airport expressway into skateboard park. That may not sound like much, but until earlier last year, Kalijodo, as the neighborhood is known, was a red light district. Run by gangs, this was a hot bed of human trafficking. Now instead of navigating discarded syringes, some of the city’s poorest kids navigate ramps – still daunting but for different reasons.

Less than 10 percent of Jakarta’s area is set aside for parks. Adding insult to injury, the city is meant to have 30 percent by law. Indifference among politicians who may live in leafy areas anyway and greedy land speculators, who hold out for bigger payouts, has meant the drive to build more parks has been stuck in – well – park.

What changed was the elevation of Basuki Purnama or “Ahok” to the governorship. He promised more green space to break up the city’s decidedly gray urban expanse. That was when his former boss, Joko Widodo, became president in 2014, making Ahok, then Widodo’s deputy, the most powerful local politician in the country. Since then he’s opened 10 new parks comprising less than a tenth of one percent of Jakarta’s 661 square kilometers.


But for 47-year-old Dwi Harsono that’s progress. Reading glasses perched on his head and wearing a black T-shirt that reads “Krushin’ It!” he watches his three sons practice the sorts of moves that makes a visiting journalist wince. Mr Harsono says that for his boys, ages 16, 13, and 7, to practice he would need to pay 45,000 rupiah (US$3.35) for each of them to use the private skateboarding parks owned by some of the malls. Fees like that can add up in a city where US$20 a day is considered a good wage. Two of them, including the youngest, Danar, have won tournaments. They aren’t about to slow down anytime soon.

It’s hard to overstate just how rare it is to have access to free space in Jakarta. Even sidewalks without gaping holes that may plunge the rare intrepid pedestrian into God only knows what below are quickly commandeered by food stalls or passing scooters hoping to leap frog traffic. That’s just in my neighborhood, where the vice president keeps his private residence in Jakarta. Imagine, then, the amenity the residents of slums only a few minutes from the airport would have.

Stepping out of the car at Kalijodo’s front entrance the visitor is immediately hit by the smell of sewage from two canals that border it. But with the coastline not five kilometers away, sea breezes can just about keep it at bay. And the park itself is inviting and professional looking. Brushed concrete at odd angles it has an edgy sense of vigor. Grass and newly planted saplings are dutifully watered. It’s a place that may suit residential areas in Sydney, or Singapore.

Trouble is, Jakarta may see not see another park like Kalijodo anytime soon. It’s advocate, Ahok, is on trial on trumped allegations by religious conservatives that he insulted the Qu’ran. He may lose re-election because of this when Jakarta goes to the polls next month. Much of his infrastructure plan, and services for the poor hangs in the balance.

“If Ahok loses we worry about what will happen to Kalijodo,” says Harsono.

“We’re not looking for a religious leader. We’re looking for someone to take care of Jakarta.”

Editor: Edward White