Friday, June 05, 2009

Where the streets have no name

Matheos Viktor Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Tue, 06/02/2009 11:04 AM | Features
Where streets have no name: JP/P.J. LeoJP/P.J. Leo
“Take a right, then look for the small green mosque – there is a big mango tree to the left of the mosque; take the next right after that and count six houses on the left.”
Anyone who has ever had to find an address in Jakarta will be familiar with directions like these, especially when they find themselves lost on strange streets, needing to send out an emergency call to a friend or their destination, or stopping to ask people on the street for help.
Think how awkward it would be if that all-important mango tree had been cut down.
You don’t have to live in Jakarta for long to learn how slow and painful it can be to locate a building just from the street address given. Even people who have lived in Jakarta for years can be frustrated by the confusion that arises from the apparently simple task of finding a particular street address.
But perhaps because each time we are faced with this annoyance we deal with it and move on, we get used to it as part of life in the city and never really complain about it, or give it much thought past the initial frustration.
Even the city authorities have apparently never seriously considered the value of naming streets and numbering houses.
But in practice it is not quite as simple as it might seem – naming city streets and numbering buildings has been a tricky business since the early years of the nation’s independence.
Even though a number of regulations have been issued over the years in a bid to impose order on the city’s streets, these ordinances have rarely been implemented.
“It’s hard to apply these regulations,” says Maulizar, the head of research and development at the city’s legal affairs division. “Almost everybody is an offender, including even me, perhaps. Many people have made their own number plate for their house or even decided their own house number.”
The radical step of renaming streets and assigning new numbers to houses, Maulizar points out, would be met with a loud public outcry, as it would require people to change many of their business and legal documents.
Further confusing the issue is the series of structural changes in local government bodies and agencies, especially the most recent changes that took place at the end of last year and which have led to confusion over just which agencies or bodies are responsible for the issue.
The relevant regulations mention that, under the new structure, an ad hoc body is to be established that will be responsible for the matter, but although committees had been appointed in the past, the ad hoc committee has not yet been reappointed, says Maulizar, adding that no other institution can be really held responsible.
“If necessary, the government should change the regulations on naming streets and numbering houses,” he adds. And what is needed is a decent database.
“If we had a complete database on the names of streets and their classifications, it would become a reference for further development,” Maulizar says. “We possibly do have some documents on the names of streets but they are scattered among different city agencies.”
The most recent regulation on numbering houses was issued in 1986, and the most recent regulation on naming streets was issued in 1999.
The 1986 bylaw stipulates that numbers must be allotted to each plot on the side of the road, with odd numbers on the left side of the road and even numbers on the right. Numbering is to begin from the end of the street closest to the National Monument.
The 1999 gubernatorial decree, which more or less repeated the content of the regulations for a similar decree issued in 1976, stipulates that the naming and renaming of streets is the job of the local provincial or city government. Members of the public can also propose streets be named or renamed.
The decree also states that the local government is responsible for the repair and maintenance of street signs when necessary because of accidental damage, vandalism or normal wear and tear.
However, the practice of naming streets in Jakarta and especially numbering buildings has never really taken these ordinances into account, despite a 1986 bylaw stating that failure to number a house is a criminal offense punishable by three months in jail or a fine of Rp 750,000.
Quite simply, in some places in Jakarta, street names do not exist. Some streets may officially have a name, but it is unknown because there is no sign at the intersection, or because the sign has been overrun by advertising.
Even where there are signs, some serve as little more than decoration, as nobody is able to use the street name for delivering mail, serving notices or simply giving directions.
In the tangled web of Jakarta streets, there are several streets with the same name, or several names for the same street. Houses in the same street may be numbered quite randomly, if only because residents choose their own house number without consulting any authority; in this case, the doubling up of numbers in the same street is unavoidable.
Not surprisingly, this causes headaches for people whose life revolves around finding streets.
“Imagine if you have passed a number in a one-way street and you have to turn back,” says Supriyadi, a post office courier in Central Jakarta.
Iwan Kurniawan, the head of the city planning, development and restoration division, confesses there is no system for naming streets and numbering houses.
“Perhaps because the effect of the street names and house numbers is invisible, it has never become a priority,” said Kurniawan, who nevertheless admits to having had trouble with duplicated house numbers.
It causes a dilemma: Reorganizing street names and building numbers in Jakarta would probably result in nothing less than a riot, but on a day-to-day level, it is a serious source of annoyance.
At the heart of the mess and stress of what should be a simple matter – finding a street address – lie a chaotic spatial development framework and ignorance of local authorities.
And it is, it appears, just part of life in Jakarta. The confusion with Jakarta addresses is the result of the city’s history, says urban sociologist Jo Santoso. It is impossible, he says, to have a single and coherent procedure for naming and numbering streets in such an old city.
“Jakarta has multiple systems for naming and numbering the streets,” he says. “The best thing to do is have a map or rely on postcodes.”

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