Dakota Crescent (Chinese: 达哥打弯) is one of Singapore’s oldest housing estates built by the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the government-run housing development authority before the establishment of the current Housing and Development Board (HDB), in 1958. Today, there are only 15 original blocks from that era which still remain to this day.
These low-rise flats are located at Old Airport Road, part of the larger residential zone known as the "Old Kallang Airport Estate". Many of the residents who formerly resided in the old estate of Dakota Crescent were once victims, or relatives or descendants of such persons, of several fire calamities which destroyed the numerous kampongs (villages) all across Singapore at that time, such as mainly from the so-called "Friday The 13th Fire" at Kampong Tiong Bahru on 13 February in 1959 and the big fire at Kampong Koo Chye on 5 April in 1958 (present-day Lorong 3 Geylang) in Kallang.
In order to build Dakota Residences and Waterbank at Dakota, two new housing developments, a total of 15 blocks, namely Blocks 34 to 56, 68, 70 and 72, were demolished. In particular, Blocks 68, 70 and 72 were listed for HDB's Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in 1999. Residents of these affected blocks moved to the HDB-built replacement flats, which were located at the nearby Pine Green (these comprise Blocks 39, 43, 45, 47 and 49 at Jalan Tiga) in 2004. In 2014, Dakota Crescent was earmarked for further future redevelopment under Mountbatten’s estate-renewal plans and all remaining residents are expected to relocate and move out by the end of 2016.
The area of what is now Dakota Crescent was the easternmost boundary of the former Kallang Airport. The name "Dakota Crescent" was derived from the Douglas DC-3 "Dakota" aircraft that used to land frequently at the Kallang Airport when it was still operational. Other locations that bear the name "Dakota" include the roads Dakota Crescent and Dakota Close, as well as the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station Dakota.
History of Dakota Crescent
During the 1950s, the housing situation in Singapore was extremely bad and the availability of housing was clearly insufficient for its rapidly-growing population, with an increasing number of people living in places with slum-like conditions and severely-poor sanitation, leading to the spread of diseases and poor health. As the central area of Singapore became gradually congested, the British colonial government decided to come up with new public-housing estates to tackle this growing problem. One of the plans included developing the Kallang area (just to the east of the town-centre) into Singapore’s equivalent of London’s Hyde Park. This master-plan was reported in the local Straits Times paper, dated from 11 March in 1955.
The low-rise brick-clad flats of Dakota Crescent Estate were built by the colonial government's SIT organisation in 1958. Completed in the same year, the overall ownership of the estate was later handed over to HDB in 1960, a mere two years later, when HDB replaced SIT in state housing development of Singapore.  When Kallang Airport was closed in 1955, being replaced by Paya Lebar Airport (or Singapore International Airport), the old runway which ran parallel to the adjacent Mountbatten Road became Old Airport Road, while the surrounding public-housing developments became known as Old Airport Estate or Kallang Airport Estate. The Old Airport Estate had a total of 2,936 housing-units which are equipped with modern amenities such as piped running water, cooking-gas, flush-toilets and electricity. Dakota Crescent was one part of the larger Old Kallang Estate and was also the first public-housing estate to feature one-room flats.
Dakota Crescent was named after the famous American aircraft known as the Douglas DC-3, which became referred to by the British as the Dakota (particularly for the military variant of the same plane, the C-47 Skytrain), which was commonly spotted landing and taking off at the nearby Kallang Airport before it was closed down in 1955. The christening of the estate's name also supposedly commemorates an aviation disaster at the airport which happened on 29 June in 1946, in which a Royal Air Force (RAF) Dakota aircraft crashed while taking off in a severe thunderstorm, leading to the death of the entire flight-crew aboard and all of its passengers (20 RAF Police NCOs) on board.
Architecture of Dakota Crescent
Open Spaces and Red-Bricked Flats
The design of these SIT-built flats was largely modelled after similar towns back in the UK and done by architects who worked for the British colonial government. The early public-housing estates in Singapore adapted various architectural elements of British architectural styles which were required to be suited to the tropical climate of the country. This can be seen from the existence of many wide open spaces, like that of London’s Hyde Park earlier mentioned and the red-bricked flats at Dakota Crescent in the past.
The open spaces of Dakota Crescent's estate, much of which still exist today, are pedestrian-friendly and have many uses, one of which is for children to play around in a large area at ease. Open public spaces such as these are no longer commonly found in modern housing estates of Singapore nowadays, since these newer flats are built in a more compact manner in order to save land-space. On the other hand, back in the old days, red clay-bricks were regarded as being very suitable building materials for housing and buildings in Singapore as it is a material that has the following three important properties: good fire-protection, high wind-protection and superior moisture-control. Furthermore, these red-bricked flats served as an icon of Dakota Crescent. People are instantly reminded of the Old Kallang Estate or Dakota Crescent upon hearing phrases such as “Red-bricked Houses”. Unfortunately, the flats at Dakota Crescent were eventually painted in order to prevent erosion from the rain, termite infestation and other damaging natural elements. The flats were painted at least twice after 2002. Some of the old paint on these flats have already been seen peeling off and thus revealed the original red bricks beneath.
Dakota Crescent now consists of 15 blocks of low-rise flats, with the highest blocks being 7 storey high. There are 4 types of building typologies, which are as follows:
1. 7-storey butterfly-shaped (pi-shaped) blocks (Blocks 2, 4, 6, 14, 18, 22, 28 and 30)
These flats are shaped in this way, instead of the usual long blocks, so as to easily fit as many blocks as possible in Dakota Crescent. In order to keep the number of units are the same even when making the blocks compact, the center is being pushed out to create the wings. The curvature of the road might also be the reason to why these blocks are curved.
2. 3-storey walk-up apartments (Blocks 16, 24, 26 and 32)
3. 2-storey commercial blocks/shop house (Block 12)
The first storey was commercialized and used as shop houses e.g. Tian Kee & Co. Provision Shop, while the second storey was residential.
4. 7-storey slab (straight) blocks (Blocks 10 and 20)
The butterfly-shaped blocks, walk-up apartments and commercial shop houses are unique to Dakota Crescent and cannot be found elsewhere, unlike the straight blocks which are replicated and can be found in other SIT estates. However, the estates which had the straight blocks were demolished and the two blocks in Dakota are the last surviving ones.
Neon Light Advertisement
In the 1960s, the use of neon lights for advertisement billboards was first introduced in Singapore. Even though this form of advertising only takes up less than a percent of the total advertising expenditure in Singapore, there were still a number of public supporters and companies which wanted to use neon advertisements. These advertisements are placed on the walls of prominent buildings, with those along the roads being easier to spot and hence more attractive. Places such as South Bridge Road and Guillemard Circus had these neon advertisements. Similarly, Block 6 of Dakota Crescent used to have one of these neon light advertisements as well (Figures 28 and 29). Unfortunately, neon advertisement business later died down in Singapore and hence we do not see the signboard on Block 6 today.
The balconies at Dakota Crescent are very unusual and different from the modern HDB flats’ balconies – one can easily see many of the balconies at Dakota Crescent having metal grills and brightly painted louvered doors, which are breathable. It is said that the balconies were painted visually different by the residents themselves, who were afraid of getting lost, so that they can recognize their houses at a glance.
Vintage Schindler Traction Elevator
The lifts at Dakota Crescent, installed by Schindler in 1958 , are still in working condition despite being very old and different from the ones used in modern HDB flats. They stop only on certain floors instead of every floor and hence can be quite inconvenient for residents, especially the elderly or handicapped. Furthermore, there are only two people left in Singapore who can give maintenance or repair these lifts if they break down. The lifts are also placed on slightly higher grounds (Figure 34) and this elevation serves as flood mitigation for the estate, which used to be prone to floods whenever it rained.
Each block in Dakota Crescent has a common rubbish chute for hygiene purposes.
The Dove Playground, another significant icon of Dakota Crescent, was designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee in 1979. Mr Khor had been asked by HDB to come up with play spaces for a new generation of public housing that would “go beyond providing just a roof over Singaporeans’ heads”. Even though he had no experience in designing playgrounds, Mr Khor began creating playgrounds based on animals and local icons like rickshaws. The dove playground was one of his designs for the series of animal-inspired adventure playgrounds. As of today, it is still situated at Dakota Crescent, with a metal bridge linking the concrete dove to the pyramidal structure which has rubber tyres swings under it.
This playground definitely contains many childhood memories of the residents, since back in the 1950s, children do not have technological devices and they would play in the vast open spaces, in muddy waters and also at this playground. One of the residents, Xue Ling, mentioned that the playground often gets flooded when it rains, and that she would put on her swimsuit to swim in the muddy water with her sister.
Besides children, adults also gather around here for conversations and social bonding. Madam Yee, a resident of more than 35 years, said, “What I like most about this place is the friendship that I’ve forged throughout the years. I live alone and it’s good that my neighbours check up on me when they have the time. Sometimes if I get bored, I go down to the playground and chitchat with them. When all of us have to shift out in 2016, hopefully, the bond between our neighbours will remain intact.”
Tian Kee & Co. Dakota Crescent
At the corner of Block 12, there used to an old provision shop opened by an elderly couple for over 50 years, before it was sold in late 2013. The shop was easily recognizable by its old signboard, which the uncle revealed that it was made by themselves. There was also the smell of butter and dried goods coming from the provision shop, with tins of biscuits lining the walls. Chanel Hu recalled, “I remember dropping the shop when I was younger. Mr Lim was always kind, courteous and giving, offering me a handful of local biscuits every time I visited. At times we spoke, he would tell me about how Singapore used to be – the sense of community, old friends and older customers.”
After being sold in 2013, the old provision shop became a popular café, which is filled with old-school and nostalgic vibes.
Now, the café had ceased operations since 30 December 2016 due to Dakota Crescent being listed as one of the estates under the SERS. All the other shop houses at Block 12 have been closed down too.
Before Geylang River was canalized, Dakota Crescent was prone to floods. Billy, who lived here for more than 50 years, talked about his experience with the floods: “One early morning, I went out to the market for breakfast, and when I returned home, it was like an island since it was a standalone flat.”
Now, Dakota Crescent is no longer as vulnerable to floods as it was, as Geylang River is canalized. The drainage system reduces flood damage by carrying water away from the estate when it rains.
Tung Ling Community Services
The centre is a place for elderly to participate in various activities like playing bingo, playing mahjong and singing. It is located in the neighbourhood of Dakota Crescent and sounds of cheering can often be heard from the centre. However, now that most residents have shifted to Cassia Estate, the centre is not as lively as it used to be.
Dakota Crescent has over 600 one or two-room units, but only 60 percent of them are occupied, majority on a rental basis. More than 300 of these residents have moved out, either to Cassia Estate Block 52, which is a few streets away, or to other housing estates in Singapore. Even though most of the residents moved to Cassia Estate Block 52, a lot of them faced a change in neighbours since they did not choose flats of the same floor. Despite having a common space on the second level, the seats are in groups of four and hence not utilized by the residents who usually have activities in bigger groups. Residents gather at the ground floor instead, but the open spaces are very limited. All these reasons contributes to the possibility of lost connections between the residents.
Conservation Efforts and Public Awareness
Dakota Crescent is a place with a substantial history and has many valuable architectural styles which cannot be found in the modern public housing estates anymore. The stories of the residents who have lived there for decades make Dakota Crescent even more interesting and special. Many people who have the same thoughts came together and tried very hard to conserve this place. Conservation efforts include a ‘Save Dakota’ Facebook page, ‘Dakota Adventures’ which consists of a group of people giving Dakota Crescent tours to raise more awareness of this issue. Other than an increasing number of people contributing to the conservation efforts, the increase in public awareness can also be seen from the fact that many production teams chose Dakota Crescent as the site of their film locations, for instance, the movie ‘3688’ (2015) by director Royston Tan and Hero. Even though Dakota Crescent has been set for redevelopment, there are no explicit plans of what to do with the estate yet. It seems that Dakota Crescent, at least some of the blocks, will be conserved after all.
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