Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A city that is alive

Above: The Chamber of Commerce & Enterprise - detail

Last Saturday I attended the Valletta 450 Seminar organised by the Valletta Alive Foundation at the Malta Chamber of Commerce & Enterprise. Excellent opportunity to meet others who have the capital city at heart and to listen to various fascinating views of the way forward.

Valletta will be 450 years old in 2016 and it is also a contender in 2018 for Cultural capital of Europe. Whether it does make it to being City of Culture in 2018 is to be seen. It all depends on how hard the people and government of the islands work at it.

There was talk by Ms. Elizabeth Aquilina from the MTA of Boutique Hotels to help bring Valletta to life. Could not help but feel proud that Valletta G-House is the pioneer of boutique places to stay!

Two presentations by architects Paul Camilleri and David Felice really captured our imagination but it was only towards the end that the seminar started to get really interesting. This is how the Malta Independent journalist Noel Grima put it:

In the end, it was the incisive analysis of Fr Peter Serracino Inglott which exposed what lay at the real heart of the question: the dilemma present in government’s thinking about Valletta and its future.

Rounding up a whole morning’s debate, at a seminar held at the Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise by the Valletta Alive Foundation, Prof. Serracino Inglott positioned himself at the other extreme of one of the first speakers at the seminar, Minister Austin Gatt.

...All that Valletta needs, Dr Gatt said, was enforcement, enforcement, enforcement. We cannot allow everyone, he said, to do what he thinks is his right. He referred to people parking on the pavement outside his home (had he not rushed away, he would have possibly seen the car owned by a former colleague of his, identifiable by its unique number plate, parked exactly there), rubbish, advertising boards (such as that in the middle of the steps of Republic Street advertising a restaurant further down), people throwing cigarette butts on the ground, pavements broken because people parked their cars, and worse, their trucks on them (The solution, he warned, could be just like in Britain or France – remove the pavements and install cement bollards instead).

Fr Peter said this is a perfect example of how residents reason, even though he too comes from Valletta and considers himself a Valletta resident. What residents want, Fr Peter said, is for Valletta to remain a showcase of the past, encapsulating a past that is gone, somewhat like Mdina.

For Fr Peter, and other speakers at the seminar, there is another scenario for Valletta, Valletta as a living city, which lives 24 hours a day, a centre of arts and culture.

Above: Prof. Serracino Inglott's wind-up

...Fr Peter faulted Dr Gatt on the figures of Valletta.

Dr Gatt referred to the decrease in the population: 35,000 people lived in Valletta in the post-war years and now there were only 10,000. Not true, Fr Peter rebutted. It never had 35,000 people, and he is older than Dr Gatt. And today it only has 6,300.

Dr Gatt argued that when Valletta was at its most populous, there were people living in tenements (kerrejjiet) just next door to his house in Republic Street, where 27 people lived in five rooms and there was no toilet except for a hole in the yard. There were people living in cellars, and even in caves near Marsamxett, beggars at City Gate and so on.

Fr Peter did not dispute this tale of poverty. He even added that the most decrepit areas of Valletta, like the Due Balli, which used to house criminals and drug addicts, are now being taken over by illegal immigrants.

But the ideal number of inhabitants of the city must have been somewhere midway between the highest population figure and its present figure

...Dr Gatt said that apart from the four big restoration projects such as the Opera House, City Gate and so on, Valletta did not need any huge investment. What it needed mostly was, as already said, enforcement.

This elicited a stinging riposte from Fr Peter.

The City Gate project alone would cost some Lm100 million and another three to four million euros to do the Opera House. One must not forget St Elmo, because according to the Renzo Piano grand plan for Valletta, this would be the second pole of the reconstruction of Valletta.

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