Drawing of Batavia Stadthuis by Danish painter Johannes Rach from the late 18th century; public domain.
It might not be much to look at now, but Fatahillah Square in present-day Jakarta used to be the nexus of military and economic power in Indonesia, back when the Dutch held sway in the East Indies.
From the 1600s to the 1800s, the Dutch East India Company had built a major economic empire stretching from Amsterdam to Japan, and as a prosperous outpost, old Batavia enjoyed all the perks. The townhouses lining Kali Besar used to be home to some of the richest men in Indonesia, and the Stadthuis facing the Stadthuisplein (now the Jakarta History Museum and Fatahillah Square, respectively) was the seat of Dutch power in the islands.
Creative Commons / Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).
Yet not all was bright and happy in old Batavia. Sporadic rebellions and attacks by disgruntled Javan princes and Chinese workers meant that the jailers and executioners were always busy, imprisoning rebels in dank jails under the Stadthuis and executing the guilty right on the Stadthuisplein itself.
The Dutch are gone and the Indonesian government, still wary of its colonial past, has lagged behind on revitalizing the old city. True, it has the most complete collection of Dutch colonial architecture in Asia, but little has been done to renew it.
Image of Fatahillah Square and Jakarta History Museum © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.
Part of the problem is the fact that Jakarta isn't a seamless city, but a number of different habitable islands. Jakarta isn't made for pedestrians. It's not easy to get here; you can take a taxi to the old city from Central Jakarta, but that leaves you IDR 20,000 ($2) out of pocket, and it's not easy to walk anywhere else from there.
Image of Batavia Cafe © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.
Only one restaurant is doing business right on Fatahillah Square, the famous Batavia Café. The place is cozy, a throwback to the 1930s down to the music and the furniture. Batavia Café is a test case for old Batavia, a sign that you can make a living selling nostalgia on Fatahillah Square. It's up to the Jakarta city government to put that lesson to work.
For more on Fatahillah Square, the former Stadthuis, and Batavia Café, read our article: Fatahillah Square in Jakarta, Indonesia.