Urban village maintains its humble appeal amid rapid development

An area said to be half the size of Paris developed rapidly, swallowing modest urban villages. Local residents shared their stories about a place they call home.

A person standing on a sidewalk

Jessica Sheridan

A local residents cross the main entrance of Kampung Sawah in South Tangerang, about an hour drive from Jakarta in this undated photo.

Located far from the hustle and bustle of the urban metropolis, the modern city of BSD, Serpong, Tangerang, offers a tranquil and peaceful alternative. Expensive palm trees swayed in the gusty wind that blew down the main roads. Sunny pavements glistened as the sun beat down, adding heat to the air.

An area said to be half the size of Paris, privately developed BSD City encompasses over 6,000 hectares of ‘first-world’ facilities, just an hour west-bound from the capital city of Indonesia, Jakarta. The city is a gigantic, spanning-through-generations project owned by Sinarmas Land, said to be one of the biggest property development companies in Southeast Asia.

The glimmer of the town isn’t dimming the lights of a small village right between BSD City and Gading Serpong, another huge suburban city next to it. Kampung Sawah, or literally meaning rice field village, still thrives with their own people coloring their lives— although their rice fields have turned into a concrete jungle. 

Villagers refuse compensation, insist to stay

Many years ago, Kampung Sawah, like its name, was surrounded by acres of paddy fields.

“I think that’s why it is called Kampung Sawah. There were a lot of paddy fields around here,” Wiwin, 43, one of the village’s residents said. She was born and raised in Kampung Sawah.

At the time, the villagers planted and harvested rice for living. The village was surrounded by plantations and farms. The roads were still quiet.

Along with time, villagers build houses for themselves. Newcomers arrived and rented places. Kampung Sawah became more crowded and residents bonded with each other.

A close up of a man wearing glasses and looking at the camera
Ijah (right), the head of neighborhood of Kampung Sawah and another resident of Kampung Sawah, Wiwin (left). (Elora Shaloomita)

“There are a lot of new villagers,” Wiwin said.

Then the BSD City expansion came to their home.

A series of construction in the area has been happening for about three years. In the beginning, most Kampung Sawah residents refused to move out from their homes. The residents chose to stay, even though BSD City proposed to buy their land. Some of them refused to move thinking that the compensation they would receive would not be enough to buy the same size of land elsewhere. 

The local residents also thought that the bond they shared with each other would be broken once they went separate ways. 

“Living in our own village is the best option because we know each other very well,“ Wiwin said.

Local residents, most of whom work in the informal sector, also feared losing their source of income. 

“We trust our neighborhood, that is why it is easier to do our venture. If we move to another village, I’m afraid it will become harder to do anything,” Ijah said.

Most of them preferred to stay, Ijah and Wiwin said.

‘No matter what, it’s still our home’

We, humans, have a sort of anxiety when something that’s supposed to be intact suddenly splits in half. The ground riven, seas parted, brought goosebumps as we watch them in movies. Here, we have the same thing. Certainly not as dramatic as the movies, but the roadway in the BSD area that we have passed several times has actually separated a village in half. 

The sizable road ahead made public access easier, but it also managed to divide Kampung Sawah into two areas. Now, they’re separated, but Wiwin admits that they are still in the same neighborhood unit.

“Well, the trouble is just crossing the road. There are just a lot of cars passing by. If there are problems, we solve them together,” said Wiwin. Next to her, Ijah nodded.

Other risks still pose from choosing to stay at the village where they were born and lived for decades. That roadway often concerns them. During the early days, accidents happen often. Worse, it also took unforeseen lives. This put the residents of Kampung Sawah in a dilemma when they had to help the victims. Most of the time they weren’t familiar with the person, and it takes time to help. But on the other hand, they are also aware of the importance of helping people, even if only occasionally.

Wiwin told a long story about this, “I was even a witness at the police station. Because of what? Because the accident was really bad and I saw it, (the victim) was operated on up to 3 times. Meanwhile, he’s not from around here. Don’t have BPJS (state-owned Health Care and Social Security Agency) or Jamkesda (Regional Health Insurance).”

There’s no other way to prove gotong royong, or working together, other than villagers. The long story continued, this time her complaint came from the loud sound of motorbikes. Not only vehicles passing by, the smooth and new road is a treat for street racers— zooming in wee hours of dawn.

“If we scold them, they fight back. This happened before, so it’s like they don’t care. They don’t like being scolded. We say, please, don’t! Look at the time! That’s the time for people to pray, the time for azan,” she said.

Sometimes small things bring happiness to people, even when they’re little fish in a big pond. During the new year celebrations, villagers can now watch fireworks, even just by turning their heads to the sky while standing on the side of the main road. 

Children lose their soccer field

Some feel benefited. For some others, not so much. The little villager boys told their stories of heartbreak after losing the field where they usually played soccer. The place is now gone, swallowed up by towering buildings. It’s almost impossible to hear each one of them, as they speak simultaneously, excitedly, and are so eager to voice their complaints.

“The soccer field was gone!”

Currently, their only playground is around their home at Kampung Sawah.

“We want BSD to build a stadium for us,” said one of them. Another one cheered, “as big as the one in Qatar!”