Stuff your boutique hotels: The pissed-off residents of Valletta’s capital of culture

Valletta 2018 triggered unliveable conditions for city residents, an anthropologists’ report for the V18 Foundation reveals

Opening ceremony V18: The Beltin complained that the revival of Strait Street wassimply an imposition of the standard nightlife model upon Valletta without regard for context
Opening ceremony V18: The Beltin complained that the revival of Strait Street wassimply an imposition of the standard nightlife model upon Valletta without regard for context

As Malta’s capital city underwent a facelift with the business ushered in by the European Capital of Culture, its community has felt the burden of seeing more residents leave Valletta after selling their homes – a wave of gentrification which some feel has ‘killed’ the city’s venerable and residential character.

The people who spoke to the anthropologists who carried out the research on behalf of the V18 Foundation, Michael Deguara, Marguerite Pace Bonello and Rene Magri, complained that the city had “lost its soul” after its European accolade, and that they could not afford to live there anymore.

Valletta, they said, was doomed to become a necropolis.

“What’s happening in Valletta is that it is getting depopulated while boutique hotels and other commercial enterprises are opening. You need commerce but you also need residents to keep a city alive. A city is made of its people – we are not talking about a necropolis, a tourist resort or an industrial estate,” one resident told the researchers.

‘Thobb haga u tobghod ohra’ (you love one thing and hate another) and ‘il-progress rigress’ (progress is regression) seemed to dominate the respondents’ sentiments as they complained of how Valletta, though bustling and rehabilitated, had become associated with unliveable conditions.

“It’s not true that boutique hotels and businesses are only taking up spaces that are not within the budget of the average person because they are buying up even small spaces… foreign and local investors do not become part of the community. They are in it for profit”

While city-dwellers said that Valletta 2018 contributed to the city’s revival, they also lamented that the rehabilitation process had pushed prices up and consequently made it more difficult, if not impossible, for young people from Valletta to buy property there.  

The Beltin voiced concern about nightlife in the area, with their main reason being the loss of the city’s character. One interviewee criticised the revival of Strait Street as being simply an imposition of the standard nightlife model upon Valletta without regard for context. Specifically, he said that: “Valletta 2018 should be all about culture but all we are seeing are new arriviste bars and restaurants while the old bars are being forgotten. We are tearing the thin veil of society here. We’ll make some money out of it but will it rip the identity of Valletta?”

27 July, 2015: A public consultation with residents at the Valletta Forum with the V18 Foundation. The people in this archive photo are not linked to the study reported in this article.
27 July, 2015: A public consultation with residents at the Valletta Forum with the V18 Foundation. The people in this archive photo are not linked to the study reported in this article.

Young respondents lamented that the Old Abattoir and the Covered Market had been “lost” to businesses offering unaffordable merchandise. At the detriment of the historical aspect of the city, they said commercialisation and business had overtaken the capital’s personality.

“It’s not true that boutique hotels and businesses are only taking up spaces that are not within the budget of the average person because they are buying up even small spaces… foreign and local investors do not become part of the community. They are in it for profit,” a respondent said.

Interviewees spoke mostly of affordability, with residents claiming that the emphasis on the entertainment industry is symptomatic of a “retrograde mentality” and that regenerating a place doesn’t have to mean pushing people out, with rent prices soaring and purchasing property becoming near to impossible.

“Money which could have helped people, was frittered away and in effect, the lasting legacy has been speeding up the touristification of the city and the expulsion of its people,” one resident said.  

Another claimed that emphasis on the businesses in Valletta has contributed to the death of the city’s character.  

“Money which could have helped people, was frittered away and in effect, the lasting legacy has been speeding up the touristification of the city and the expulsion of its people”
“Money which could have helped people, was frittered away and in effect, the lasting legacy has been speeding up the touristification of the city and the expulsion of its people”

“There’s a feeling that financial well-being is the only form of well-being, there is no pursuit of beauty or spirituality, but we need to look beyond this amazing economic growth to which we have all submitted,” a 35-year-old male resident said.  

Residents reported that unless they live in a governmental rental, people were facing dramatic increases in rent. They referred to elderly residents whom they know and who are being forced out due to increased rents, with property owners professing their desire to rent out to more bankable foreigners.

“This situation has arisen because of several factors, including changes in rent laws, increased foreign investment, the regeneration of areas such as Strait Street and the proliferation of boutique hotels and other tourist accommodation, as well as the spotlight cast on the city through the title of the European Capital of Culture,” one resident said.

While the researchers hinted at the possible unease of residents at the thought of gentrification, the majority of residents complained that besides affordability, they had to move house due to increased noise and congestion – more than the perception of no longer feeling at home, a considerable number of Beltin said they felt “pressured” to leave.

Valletta 2018 gave Malta a fantastic cultural calendar
Valletta 2018 gave Malta a fantastic cultural calendar

The report reads that though “often tinged with the rhetoric of nostalgia, these concerns cannot be reduced to mere romanticism when threats to liveability have become tangible. Furthermore, voicing a need to safeguard the communal aspect of Valletta is not an argument against the improvement of the city’s infrastructure.

“None of the respondents, even those most concerned about the impacts of gentrification and monumentalisation, have been dismissive of regeneration projects in themselves,” the researchers said, adding that the study conducted should inform us that urban regeneration ought to be more community-friendly and sustainable.

The study contended that infrastructural designs should take into account the social aspect of the city and enable human interaction.

“The adaptability and pride that the Beltin and other residents display towards their city remain a precious but under-utilised resource in making Valletta a more liveable city.”

Residents remain hopeful, however. “Valletta is liveable because, at the end of the day, people cope and we develop adaptation mechanisms.”  

Another said that residents are likely to learn to live with difficulties because there are a lot of things one can enjoy about living in the capital.

“We know how lucky we are to live here,” a 34-year-old female resident said. “We feel this city belongs to us so we tend to fear that it’s being taken away.”

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