Clutch, break, put into gear, inch forward. Line of red lights stream on, clutch, break, put into gear, inch forward, red lights. Stuck in St. Mark’s Street, why didn’t I catch the bus? You still need to find parking, you fool. Why didn’t I catch the bus? Clutch, break, put into gear.
Is it because I am lazy? Yes, complaining about the traffic, while generating it. It is still better than being stuck inside a Maltese bus. A/Ced and horrid. But mainly it’s because of laziness.
No, public transport is not the topic of this article. Back to St. Mark’s Street, Valletta. Back to the queue of us feckless drivers.
My turn to enter Old Bakery Street. Left or right…where can I deposit this bloody car? Up, down, left, right, pac-manishly weaving through the grid.
Eyes peeled for parking, no parking, is that parking? Nope, reserved. Now stuck behind a delivery truck. The driver takes his time. Stacks his goods on his trolly and leaves the van door open for none to pass. The road to the left is blocked by a crane, the one to the right by a religious procession. The delivery man walks back, delivery slip in mouth, closes the back door, hops into the drivers seat, and jerks the van off slowly.
No luck, most parking spaces have been sequestered for a state event. On the ring road, stuck behind a horse carriage outside MCC. It’s hot, I’m stuck to the seat and the city smells of horse shit. Serves you right for not catching the bus.
Finally parked, I leg my way into the city. Admittedly enjoying the walk up the “cursed streets of stairs” towards Republic street. Tourists amble through the back streets, locals perch in balconies hidden amongst their aired washing.
Built in 1566 a few months after the Great Siege…bleh, you know the story. “A city of palaces, built by gentlemen…”Grid pattern, Laparelli, bastions, baroque, cathedrals, churches, churches, churches, grand palaces, auberges for the knights, Manderaggio for the poor, churches.
Surrendered to the French. Colonised by the British, pummelledby the Axis. Reconstructed by the British. Ultimately abandoned by the Maltese. Now touted to be the Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2018.
We are told that Valletta is passing through a renaissance. The only thing it seems to be passing through is trauma.
Prior to being awarded the title of Capital of Culture 2018 in late 2012, the city was barely alive. A city with two peoples; a dwindling and ageing residential population and a commuting population of workers and visitors. From eight a.m. to seven p.m. the streets would be busy with shoppers, lawyers, tourists, civil servant, etc. by the end of business hours, poof, deserted. Sunday’s would attract the catholic crowds to the churches.
T’was not a place you went to hang, unless you went to the theatre, or could afford the handful of restaurants that existed. It was definitely not a place you lived. Dilapidated by decades of neglect, intricate limestone facades dirtied by soot and pigeon shit. All types of wires affixed along the walls, zig-zagging from one side of the street to the other. The state of the interior was far worse.
And cars, cars parked in every cranny and alcove. Valletta boasted one of Europes most opulent car parks, the Royal Opera House. Harrison and Hubbard (1945) had warned us of the damage modern wants could inflict on the city.
How indeed can one “…modify a City to serve the simple needs of the sixteenth century so that it may satisfactorily serve the complex needs of today?”
By 2011 Valletta’s population was 5,784 (when in the late 1800s the number stood at 25,000). Comprising of locals inhabiting mainly social housing or dilapidated palazzi under old rent laws, and pockets of young foreign artists and architects, who took advantage of cheap rent and spacious vintage apartments in palazzi - the latter were the first to see Valletta’s true beauty.
Even though dying, the city housed the nations top institutions. Administrative, judicial, and cultural. All of which over the past five years, amid Valletta’s renaissance, have been going through their own changes.
Renaissance…let’s call it for what it truly is, boutification. Renaissance implies the glorious rebirth of one of the first truly European cities. This is a hostile real-estate take over, run by the Maltese.
Each building, and every space in the city, is marred by a green leafed PA notice, nailed into the facade…
I could go on complaining and bitching about the current state of affairs. Yes there are many issues with the way Valletta is being gentrified, you probably have complained about them yourselves and rightly so. But not all is shitty.
The alcohol and food variety and quality has improved. Wood’s 100 Navy Rum is now automatically served with a wedge of lime. Restaurants, cafes, and bars, mainly run and staffed by foreigners. Some are raising the bar, some cruise, and others have white tents.
Where there is good food and alcohol, the arts are not far behind. Independent Galleries Blitz and AP Lounge put up a variety of contemporary exhibitions, promoting collaborations between local and foreign artists.
Although politically highjacked, Valletta 2018 has been organising, collaborating, and coordinating, great cultural initiatives and activities. The third in the successful series of Cities as Community Spaces conference has just come to an end. The fourth edition of Żigu Żajg, a colourful festival for children and youth has also just passed. Ignoring the politics of Valletta 2018 and Mario-Philip, the V18 staffers are doing a good job.
Musicians can be heard blowing trumpets, banging skins, strumming cords. Maltese roots band Etnika are to launch their new album, Maddalena's Marvellous Tripfolk Klabb, on the 3rd and 4th December with gigs at the Sala San Duminku. Go, Etnika is a band we can collectively be proud of.
Theatre has been a constant in Valletta, bar again Mario-Philip, the scene is on the up and up. The Manoel recently restored with French finesse. It-Teatru Reali, M.I.T.P., St. James Cavalier, are all putting on a show.
Locals and foreigners buying up old dilapidated flats and palazzos, restoring and converting them with care, bringing them into the 21st century. Architects who treat each project with the care and attention the buildings deserve.
Obviously for every good architect, there’s the armada of pwieret (broken plural of perit) splaying the Maltese mediocrity all over the place.
This level of splaying is closely linked to the increase real-estate business. And brother Business has been a boomin’! Using Valletta 2018 to line their pockets and splay their bad taste.
St. Georges Square, Castille Square, the two most important open spaces in the city and recently reworked are boring. Fort St. Elmo’s restoration looks like a Hollywood botox job. MUZA? I hear MCC is currently getting splayed.
I’m waiting to see what will become of Is-Suq. From viewing the renders, nothing good I suspect…did you see that strange light fixture? It won’t be long before they convert it into a wedding hall. But what the heck, the trade off is Waitrose, winning.
Gentrification is temporary. Once completed, if the roots planted are too shallow, then city will wilt again.
If we want to be able to truly call Valletta, a city built by the foreign nobility, a Maltese Capital City. We must celebrate and promote the good, of which there is an abundance, and take a hard informed look at the bad, of which there is more.