Monday, June 16, 2014

My new old city.

Let me paint a picture of my new old city for you.

I know that right now you're all like this is going to be boring OK bye but I promise it's not!

Valletta is a Baroque city, built in the mid sixteenth century, and planned from the bottom up in a very trendy grid pattern. It measures just 900 meters by 630 meters. Let's put that into context. Here are all the things you could fit in it:
  • Las Vegas' Aria Resort and Casino
  • Times Square (pretty much down to the inch)
  • Half of Hyde Park, one-sixth of the Toronto Zoo or one-seventh of Central Park
  • The Vatican City
  • 10 Louvres
So, it's really small.

Valletta's streets are lined with tall, narrow, honey coloured townhouses, and its numerous city squares are dominated by imposing palaces and churches. It's surrounded by giant fortress walls and its hilly streets could rival those of San Francisco. It's a city time has forgotten, a time capsule of sorts; Just 1% of the buildings in Valletta were constructed after 2001. Quite literally, the entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site.

During World War II Valletta was severely bombed and damaged. I can't overstate how much it suffered. It was the most bombed Allied city during World War II: More than London or Berlin. It lost its Victorian opera house, the beautiful Auberge D'Auvergne (now the site of the law courts), and numerous homes and lives.* It drove the Maltese underground to rock cut shelters that could accommodate 185,000: shelters that are a permanent part of the urban landscape today. Look at photos of Valletta pre-war and there are entire sections of the city that looked completely different (and certainly more resplendent) back then.

After the war there was a shortage of housing in the city and Valletta's population declined rapidly from 19,000 just after 1945 to 6,000 today. Of the people that live here now, 30% are over the age of 60, practically all are Maltese, and just 7% have a tertiary education.

I have never been more in the minority anywhere I've lived (and I've never felt more at home.)

Valletta is the smallest capital city in Europe, and until very recently it's also been a ghost town. The vacancy rate of properties here is around 30%. (Sometimes I sit and try to picture all those empty spaces, and what they might look like.) And, while 70% of all occupied buildings in Valletta are rentals, good luck finding one that's available to rent: Much of the property here is social housing. Further, 30% of properties in Valletta are dilapidated, passed on through families and never inhabited or repaired, much less rented out.  These and other factors have led to the perception that some areas of Il-Belt ("The City") are "rough". Which is, by the numbers, far from the truth. There is far more crime in the posh neighbourhoods of Sliema, St. Julians, and St. Paul's than in Valletta: compare its 560 crimes per year to St. Julian's 3,000.

Regardless, life in Valletta still sounds pretty grim on paper. It's a mostly vacant city, whose inhabitants are seniors, and whose face is forever scarred by war.

But enter Valletta and it's not the numbers you see. Live in Valletta and it's not the numbers that matter. #LifeinValletta is beautiful, and I can't wait to share it with you.

*You can find many of the Maltese who died in WWII memorialized online here.

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