This article first appeared in Malta Today
Every time a house is torn down to make way for a new development of flats, penthouses and ‘commercial spaces’, it is not just the next door neighbours who are inconvenienced and have to live through months and years of sheer hell, not to mention possible structural damage to their properties until the work is finished.
The entire neighbourhood goes through an often unwelcome transformation because what used to be a family home metamorphoses into a building housing a number of new families or temporary tenants. While on the surface this might not seem like such a big deal, in fact, as we have seen from what has happened in various areas, this changes the very fabric of the neighbourhood forever. With people who are just renting for a short time, especially, it becomes even more challenging because certain basics which those who have lived in a place for a long time take for granted are no longer necessarily the case. This can be anything from taking out their rubbish on the wrong days and times, to hanging washing out on the balcony facing the street, to playing loud music, to a number of other day-to-day irritants which can spoil the residential area. When you drive around the island you can almost always tell the old neighbourhoods where there is a certain pride in keeping it attractive, from the new ones where residents do not stick around long enough to care.
There is also a lot to be said for the affinity which one has with a certain town or village in which one has lived for ten years or even a whole lifetime. Decades of living in the same area can give you a feeling of belonging and a sense of community which is more important than we sometimes realise. You only really appreciate it when something happens: like when there is a screech of brakes and the sound of a crash signaling a traffic accident causing everyone to rush out to make sure no one was hurt and to check on damage to each other’s vehicles. There is a sense of looking out for one another which is hard to foster when one is just ‘passing through’. Living next door to the same people for a long time also establishes a certain foundation of trust: you can let them know you are going to be away, to be on the lookout for anything suspicious and in some cases, even to pick up your mail. Your longtime neighbours are sometimes also the first people you can turn to in case of an emergency.
A street can go from a place where ‘everyone knows your name’ to an anonymous, faceless row of blocks of apartments of displaced people who have no roots to the area, and no particular need to establish any form of relationship with others, either. If they know they will not be staying there very long, there might not even be any inclination to keep the surroundings clean – it is not their home, there is no emotional connection, who cares anyway, right? Especially when the locals don’t seem to care that much either. With the growing trend of packing as many people into a flat as possible by forcing them to shares rooms, at exorbitant rates (the latest shocking news is of a landlord charging 500 Euros per bed in a shared room), the invisible threads which link communities together continue to be irrevocably shred to pieces.
When a retail outlet is also opened as part of this new development, it further contributes to the destruction of the identity and residential quality of the area, especially if something like a takeaway is opened with all the accompanying smells and fumes, plus haphazard parking and noise at all hours of the day.
How is this all being allowed to happen, we ask ourselves on a daily basis, as we see that dreaded little white and green PA sign affixed to a building near us?
The developers themselves are the most obvious culprits, although I am sure that they are passed the point of caring. Any attempts to appeal to their better nature is a lost cause and would be like dealing with someone from a different planet. Where big money is involved I think a mist tends to come over the brain like a thick fog and some people cease to be rational or humane. I also believe this happens mostly to those who originally come from relatively poor backgrounds, who have an overwhelming fear of being cast back into poverty and are therefore desperately trying to forestall this by amassing more wealth than a person can possibly need in one lifetime. They remind me of those big name rappers who come from the ghetto or the socially deprived areas known as ‘the projects’ in the US. Whenever you read their life story it is always the same: of how they had a burning desire and ambition to ‘make it’, and now that they have more wealth than they could possibly have ever dreamed of, they buy countless houses and collect cars, while walking around in branded clothing, wearing thick, fat, gold jewellery and bling, an ostentatious sign of their new ‘status’. Many of them do everything they can to distance themselves from their dirt poor origins, sometimes even rejecting it, even though it is a fact that you can never really escape where you truly came from because it is an intrinsic part of who you are. The same can be said about a lot of these developers who are inflicting their idea of ‘luxury projects’ on to the rest of us, and who seem to be over-compensating for their own insecurities by building higher and bigger each time. Maybe what they actually need is a really good therapist instead to make them come to terms with their hang ups.
It is also easy to blame those homeowners who are selling up to the big developers, who seem not to give two jots about what they are doing to destroy what will soon be their former neighbourhood. Yet, as I have often been asked, wouldn’t you take the money and run if you were in their place and you were being offered a lucrative deal? In fact, I have thought at great length about what I would do in their position, and no, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t do it because I would be the biggest hypocrite after having criticized over-development so many times. In the case of older people who see this as a chance to have a nice nest egg to live out the rest of their retirement in comfort, while leaving something for their children (because developers often offer a flat or two as part of the deal), yes, I can understand their reasoning – even though I still cannot agree with it.
So where does the buck ultimately stop? It stops, of course, with the authorities. I’m not even going to say the Planning Authority (whose members are simply political appointees anyway), but firmly and squarely with the present government. A government which has passed laws quite easily when it has seen fit to, so I see no reason why it cannot change development laws as well. What am I saying? Of course it has changed them, but to our collective detriment, in favour of the few.
In countries where development is done with a certain amount of forward planning and foresight, there are zoning laws which clearly set out demarcation lines of what can be developed and where, which areas are commercial, which are residential, and which old buildings are strictly protected, along with firm regulations about the height of apartment buildings and the rights of people to live in their dwelling without their natural light suddenly being blocked by a slab of concrete.
This jungle which has been created by an administration which has become enslaved in a trap of its own making by allowing developers to have carte blanche to build anything they want, anywhere they want, is going to be the most damning legacy of the Muscat Government. Like many of our readers, I keep hearing terrible stories of people suffering acute hardship and distress because of the construction taking place right next door to them, and no one can (or wants to) do anything about it.
Tell me, what price progress, if we are entombed in our own homes?