Once one sets aside the common sense conclusion that the poor are always more vulnerable, things get a little more complicated in Jakarta. Of course one of the reasons for this common sense is that one doesn’t have to waste time with such complications. But these complications become a hedge against cheap assaults against the vulnerable and ways of working out intricate arrangements marked by varying layouts of the concrete. And here the concrete I have in mind is quite literal—the size of thoroughfares, some of which qualify as roads, others as glorified pathways.
In the vast central city districts such as Bukit Duren, Johar Bahru, Menteng Dalam, or Mataram, land politics have largely centered on where vehicles of certain dimensions can go. As in many cities, automobility came to embody efficacy in the city. Even if a household had the financial means to acquire a car, it didn’t necessarily mean that they had somewhere they could easily put it. The past exigencies of urban residence were—and, of course, largely remain –access to affordable places to live, something accomplished through high densities. Densities not only availed relatively cheap accommodation; they facilitated multiple forms of social connectivity, information exchange and fluid labor markets that created their own versions of mobility and mobilization. The ways in which these densities were materialized did not permit easy access for automobiles, especially if they were to be directly stored within the confines of household space.
In initial spatial layouts designed through government programs or private developments, the usual pattern was to inscribe a few feeder and through-flow roads around which were build the majority of residential plots circumnavigated by small lanes whose sizes depended on the characteristics of the terrain or the extensiveness of the inevitable subdividing and parceling engineered by local residents themselves. Properties on feeder roads escalated in value as cars became more plentiful, and in many instances, areas that had not been accessible to automobiles were re-plotted –a process that required significant funds in order to assemble the land necessary. Those with access to such resources would usually, in turn, construct large homes, often in accordance with local regulations specifying that certain proportions of land-holdings had to be developed. At the same time, cars do find ways of fitting themselves into inhospitable conditions. In my neighborhood, Tebet Dalam, the small crowded houses that are a few steps up in size and quality from the conventional working class three-room bungalow, take on a different aura as they squeeze a car into a makeshift frontage. The surrounding lanes barely allow a single car to pass, so herculean maneuvers are always required if more than two cars show up at the same time.
The stereotypical portrayals of automobility as producing less dependence on others—as individuals, capable of moving around the city according to their own individuated temporality and desires— seem to ring true in Jakarta’s car-accommodating areas. Here, a persistent quiet seems attributable to the fact that residents are either rarely at home or have little need to occupy the street as a space of social conviviality or economic necessity. Although professionally, I often meet many people who reside in such situations, I rarely inquire anymore about events or conditions regarding the larger district in which they live since they always seem to know little about what is going on.
As these car-accommodating streets are by far the minority of pathways in these area, they can come to have a ghostly feel to them, as they are surrounded by lanes that are extensions of household interiors, themselves extensions of the lanes. Crowdedness is not just a function of the miniscule size of most residences; their stale or suffocating air, but also a function of the creation of a different kind of mobility.
Cooking, chatting, grooming, cleaning, repairing, gossiping, and gaming all take place as part of the domestic and convivial neighborhood life. But residents primarily use crowdedness to experience another kind of mobility. They have a sense of enlarging their reach and access into events and territories having cars wouldn’t really expedite. For they mostly talk about what is going on elsewhere; what others are up to who are not visibly present. Sometime this interest in exteriority is concretized through specific projects—travels to markets or to distant work sites, collective investment in a trading place outside the district, taking over a food selling operation near the parking lot of a new shopping mall, appropriating abandoned space for storage, or inserting small trades in the fringes along busy thoroughfares, or running protection services.
Whatever form this interest takes, it becomes a possibility for residents of a district to be in a larger world together—in ways that do not assume a past solidity of affiliations, a specific destination nor an ultimate collective formation to come. As such, what many Jakarta residents have come to misconstrue as poor neighborhoods generate an economic dynamism that enables those with comfortable middle class residents yet increasing nervous dispositions to stay put, and thus help ward us the incursions of big developers—for now.
Once one gets past the common sense assumption that the poor are always more vulnerable, the spatial politics of the traditional residential districts of Jakarta dramatize a series of complicities and trade-offs. Contiguous districts of relative wealth and impoverishment offer each other specific affordances—each covers, hedges, protects and sustains the other in ways that are not clearly just or without manipulation. The penetration of cars for the time being generates money that enables the areas where cars can’t go to keep the really big and debilitating money at bay. These are twists and turns not easily available to concrete.