Gently Gentrifying the Grocers

Sometimes in mid ‘90s a friend moved to Cikajang St. in Santa area. Her civil engineer father, who’d been involved in many development projects, predicted Santa would be the next popular enclave of Kebayoran Baru. There were only some noodle andgudeg joints then, but soon beauty salons and boutiques popped out. Nowadays residential houses on Santa including CikajangSt. have been turned into every commercial establishment under the sun. My friend’s father had been spot on.

A few months ago someone invited me to a pop-up bazaar in Santa Market. Yes, the good old grocery market. I thought I’d read wrong. Admittedly intriguing, but unfortunately the timing was off. Didn’t think much about it until last month an interior designer dragged me there to inspect a kiosk she promised to decorate. And there it was on the 2nd floor, the latest hangoutscene enfolding before me. There was a noodle joint, a blues records kiosk, a cute thrift store, and the coffee shop thatinitially got the ball rolling.

It was barely sundown yet the coffee had run out; two A-list entertainers sitting on drab benches waiting for their orders.Most kiosks were being outfitted while lease waiting list was expanding. Shortly afterwards hash-tagged pictures started to pop on social media, the ‘it’ coffee shop made it to a foreign newspaper feature on Indonesian coffee and suddenly everyonefelt the need to have coffee or shop in in Santa Market, atraditional grocery market that most people typically are happy to relegate the uncomfortable business of frequenting to their housemaids.  

Helloooo, gentrification.

Referenced as early as 1888, gentrification was formally coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to illustrate the shift in an urban community towards higher class of residents or businesses, is often driven by real estate developers or creative types, lowers crime and increases value, and may eventuallydrive out the initial lower class residents or tenants.

Why gentrification happens? Neil Smith’s rent-gap theoryargues that gentrification happens when the actual capitalized rent of a place given its present use is lower than what may be gleaned under a ‘higher and better’ use.  David Ley pinpointschanges in socio-cultural characteristics and motives, where ‘stylization of life’ leads the new middle class to favordowntown’s old or forgotten properties more than far suburbs’ new buildings.

Gentrification is cited as the force behind the rising of London’sBarnsbury in 1950s and Islington in 1990s, New York’s Soho in 1960s and Meatpacking District in 1990s, and Philadelphia’s Darien Street in 1970s, among others. Closer to home, it’s very probably behind the sudden interest on Jakarta’s Veteran St. in late 1990s or Cikini, Ubud’s town market and Singapore’s heritage Tiong Bahru in recent years.

So, good or bad? Most things in life aren’t black and white.Certainly lower crime, nicer architecture and better upkeeps arepreferable to many, but higher land prices that come with it will gradually make it unaffordable for the original residents. If they end up leaving, they may bring away the very characters that lured in the gentrifiers to begin with.

Though rather dirty, Ubud town market in the 1990s was charming for the mixing of curious tourists and townspeople shopping groceries from local traders, but lately, especially after the renovation, it solely became handicraft center for tourists peddled by mostly non-Ubudian sellers. Singapore’s TiongBahru now is a nice mix of mom-and-pop’s eateries and quirkyshops but the launch of a mega apartment complex I witnessed two weeks ago, which tags SGD 1 million for the 1-bedroom unit, won’t only dwarf Tiong Bahru’s gorgeous all-white art deco buildings but may also drive out its modest locals.

What about Santa Market? That the new crop of kiosks somehow managed to make visiting a grocery market somewhat cool, is good. That more young people start a business, is great. That whether it will also bring good things to other sellers,remains a big question. During return visits I learned that rentwas steadily climbing while the new customers would go straight upstairs without throwing a glance, let alone making a purchase, at older kiosks—most of which would close before dusk. Even if pre-existing sellers already own their kiosks, they may still face higher operating costs from the lot’s increased value and may be pushed to rent out their kiosks instead.

Do I hate capitalism? Heck, no. I ardently support people to do commerce and eke the best value out of every business deal. Santa Market’s new businessmen have as much stake to keep the old sellers to retain the “slummin’ it” image that’s luring customers, so I suggest they do cross-selling. F&B kiosks, source produces and drinks from basement traders. Knickknack kiosks, order your printing jobs from first floor traders. Apparel kiosks, commission sewing or alteration works to the tailors downstairs. By that everyone can get a little sweet piece of the growing pie, and pre-existing sellers will also have an interest to keep upstairs business afloat and its customers comfortable (and how easy it would be to spoil it by, let’s say, get toilets dirty or make morning market smell lingers into the night).

As for my friend’s family, while the new wave of gentrification is sweeping into Santa they moved to a “quieter” neighborhood. Their house is now a consulting firm’s office. Gentrification does strike twice sometimes.

So, what’s next, peeps? Slipi, Palmerah, or Tebet Market?

Published on Saturday, Sept 27th 2014, in The Jakarta Post, pg. 22 under UrbanChat column.

This entry was posted in City Life, Econ & Biz, Life Bites, Society, UrbanChat. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gently Gentrifying the Grocers

  1. Ari says:

    The question that lingers in my head is: how long will the new-look Pasar Santa survive? In a market with such volatile consumers, where trends come and go like the seasons, how fast can the tennants reap profit and patrons that will secure them long-term sustainability? You can only ride hype so far.

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