From a ‘cage’, to a ‘gated community’ | Adrian Grima

The db project in Pembroke is about more than just the usual speculative land-grab. Prof. ADRIAN GRIMA - associate professor of Maltese literature, and a vocal critic of overdevelopment – argues that it also encapsulates our collective failure to ever ‘imagine a different kind of Malta’

Prof. Adrian Grima
Prof. Adrian Grima

In one of your interventions against the db project, you argued that “a bully has been allowed to enter resident’s homes; and in this case the PA made a clear choice, in favour of bullies and against residents.” Was that comment only about this particular project? Or do you see it as applicable to the direction the country is taking as a whole?

I suppose the easy answer would be that: yes, it is definitely applicable to more than just the db project alone. It is somehow a paradigm, a model, that has been replicated – and is being replicated – over and over again.

In this case, however, it is both the project itself that has attracted so much disagreement; but also, the model that it replicates. And we see this, not only in the record number [17,000] of objections; but also in the fact that money has been raised twice, in a very short time, to fight it legally.

This is a case of ordinary people, reaching into their own pockets, to challenge precisely this kind of… arrogance, I would say.

Personally, however, what I find so unacceptable is that this project goes against everything that – to me; but to many other people, too – represents the kind of Malta that we would like to live in. And this is not about ‘false nostalgia’. It’s not about simply ‘opposing change’, for its own sake. It’s also about the kind of community we really want to create here; and the kind of space we would like to inhabit… but also, to create.

Because space is created; it is not merely passively inhabited. And the type of space we are creating, with this project in particular – and others like it – not only makes us ‘spectators’, or passive ‘consumers’, within a system… but it even reduces us to mere ‘commodities’.

It is thanks to us – thanks to our space, our time, our attention - that a project like this can become a financial success: not for the country as a whole, but only for those promoting it. Abd yet, in the process that led to its approval by the PA… we – the ordinary people, the members of residential communities, etc. – became simply part of a system that is generating wealth for the few.

So on top of everything else that is objectionable about this particular project – the fact that it is a private initiative that excludes the community; and also, ultimately, an imposition on public land – what we are looking at is also the creation of a society in which the people themselves are both ‘excluded’, and, quite literally, ‘commodified’…

On a separate note: you recently blogged about the 50th anniversary of Frans Sammut’s seminal novel, ‘Il-Gagga’. Even the title – ‘The Cage’ – hints at a similar paradigm: a feeling of ‘helplessness’, of being ‘trapped’ in a system. Would you agree, then, that – despite all the changes of the past 50 years – some of those concerns remain relevant today?

To be frank, I don’t see that many similarities between the two scenarios. ‘Il-Gagga’ was written in a very different historical moment – and also, I would say, a very different moment in our literary history. It is much more about the individual psychology of [main character] Fredu Gambin.

Of course, there is the national dimension, which is encapsulated in that final scene: the count-down to Independence – from 10 to zero – at the end of the novel. But apart from the Independence of the nation, or of the wider community… it is primarily the independence of Fredu Gambin himself.

The ‘cage’ he was trying to break out of was… all around him, yes; but it was also a psychological cage which he had created within himself, because of his egocentrism.  So I would say it’s a little more complex, in the novel.

Nonetheless, if you take just the central image – the ‘cage’ – then yes, you could certainly draw a few parallels. To me, for instance, it immediately calls to mind the image of a ‘gated community’.

Because that’s what we’re talking about, in the case of the db project… and also, in the sense of the sort of space we are creating generally. It’s just another ‘gated community’, to add to the rest. For there are other examples: Tigne, for instance, is arguably an even worse case… in terms of architecture, landscape, and how the rest of the community is generally excluded.

But to cut to the chase: these are all real estate projects, at the end of the day. They’re all about selling very expensive apartments, to very rich people: who may or may not actually live in them… and who will certainly not engage with the local community.

But there are other issues, also arising from this concept of a gated community, that have important implications. One of the things that really angered me, in the second presentation [of the db project], was the way that education was... how can I put it?... Disrespected. Mistreated. The total disregard that was displayed towards education, not just by the developers themselves… but ultimately, by the Planning Authority that approved it.

I assume you’re referring to the decision to relocate the Institute of Tourism Studies, to make way for the project…

Yes; but not just the decision itself… also, the rather strange way it came out in public discussion.

One of the arguments, repeated more than once by the developers, was that the project site was previously used as a college [ITS]: and therefore, that it was ‘closed to the public’. So the argument goes that, by converting it into a private space which ‘allows public access’… they would be turning it from a ‘closed’, to an ‘open’ public space...

[Pause] I mean: how much more absurd could an argument possibly be?  We are talking about a public educational institution here: a school – which, like all schools, exists not only to promote the development of the individual: but also of the community as a whole; as well as, in this particular case, the development of a national industry, tourism.

So how on earth can that be compared to what is basically a private real estate development… on public land? How can that argument even be made in public – repeatedly – to justify something as indefensible as a private, commercial initiative, replacing (of all things) a school?

Honestly, it’s incredible that they even had the gall to make such an argument in the first place. Not to mention the fact that – having deprived the local community of that school – the same institution has now been bundled off to a dilapidated building in Luqa… waiting for a new building that is meant to be built for it, some time in the future, in Smart City… all to accommodate a single, private business investment…

Where else in the world would such a thing even be allowed to happen? And where would it not be challenged, in public discourse?

In this case, however the real ‘scandal’ (so to speak) is not so much that the developers made absurd arguments… but that those arguments carried the day, in the end. You said it yourself: the db project – absurdities and all – was approved by the PA. Is this why you also described the PA itself as ‘taparsi’ [make-believe]?

Actually, the original word I used was ‘finta’ [false]. But then I changed it to ‘taparsi’, because I wanted to forge a link with Oliver Friggieri’s ‘Fil-Gzira Taparsi [Jikbru l-Fjuri]’…

But to answer your question: yes, the choice of word was not incidental. Because… and this is another of the issues that worry me…  this project also shows us how language itself is – like education – ‘devalued’.

Let me put it this way: if you can not only make that sort of absurd argument, but actually get away with it, too… then, by that reasoning, anyone can say whatever the hell they want. It doesn’t matter, anymore: language itself becomes meaningless. It all becomes a charade… hence, ‘taparsi’…

This is a point you raised separately in your contribution to the President’s ‘State of the Nation’ conference: by drawing parallels with French philosopher Guy Debord’s ‘La Societe du Spectacle’, which notes that ‘a lack of authenticity’ […] ‘impoverishes the quality of life’. Could you expand on that? How does the paradigm we are looking at reflect Debard’s concept of a ‘society of the spectacular’?

One of the most devastating things that Guy Debord predicted – in a book he wrote in 1967: when he couldn’t possibly have imagined how prophetic his vision would prove, half a century later – was that a society that is based only on ‘appearances’… where everything I reduced to ‘images’… will also affect our interpersonal relationships as human beings: the way we actually relate to one another.

I don’t just mean the value that we attach to physical appearance - whether we are overweight, or underweight, or anything like that. In Debord’s case, he was referring specifically to the Parisian banlieues of the 1960s:  which he saw as developing into a kind of ‘depersonalised’ urban environment.

Today – and again, this is something Debord himself couldn’t possibly have predicted– we see it in such phenomena as the global proliferation of ‘fake news’; or how the Internet, and social media in particular, likewise tends to reduce everything to ‘images’…

Having said this, though: up to a certain point, the correlation doesn’t work perfectly, in the case of a very small community like ours. Because – and this brings me back to the word ‘taparsi’ – we do have the critical capacity to see through the deception, here.

No matter how much we criticise, or complain about, our educational system: to my mind, education in Malta has made giant strides forward over the years. And one of the things that it has given us, is precisely a sense of critical thinking.

And we use it, too. Let’s face it: those absurd arguments don’t really fool anyone, anymore. We see beyond the platitudes, and all the grandiose arguments used to justify gentrification. We are not duped, by all the wonderful plans for ‘beautification’ of the area between Pembroke and Paceville. We know perfectly well that there are going to be coaches, lining up outside those buildings. We know that we are going to be deprived of the public space that was ours, and even of the very air that we breathe… first because of all the construction, and later because of all the traffic this project will bring, and so on.

So even if we are certainly are part of the 21st century society envisaged by Debord – a society that is dominated by appearances – at the same time, we still see through all this charade. And I might add: even more so today, as a result of Covid-19.

Because the pandemic has also given us the opportunity to see a slightly different Malta, for a change: a Malta with less traffic, less tourism…

… not with less construction, though…

No. If anything, it is the other way round. Covid has only amplified all the issues we have with dust, and noise… and the constant violation of our own personal, private space. But again: this, in itself, also means that we see these issues more… not less.

And I think this is precisely why so many people thrust their hands deep into their own pockets, to fork out the money to fight these projects in court… even if they are not 100% certain that the institutions actually work. Because what we are fighting for here are not ‘luxuries’. They are basic, fundamental necessities.

Don’t we have a right, to breathe clean air… to be able to enjoy public spaces… to live without having to face the consequences of overdevelopment, each and every day of our lives?

These all add up to what we call ‘quality of life’, at the end of the day. So I think that, ultimately, one of the biggest problems we now have to face is that… we have failed to ever imagine a different kind of Malta. We have talked a lot about ‘construction’, yes; and we have certainly built a lot… but have we ever really stopped to ask ourselves: what sort of society are we actually trying to build…?