Is There Any Sliema Left To Save?
Is it time to throw in the towel?
There's no other way of putting this. Maltese people love to complain. It's just part of our make-up. There'd be a lot of awkward silences if we didn't – at the greengrocers, over drinks, from one galleria to another...
One thing that's really got our goat at the moment is over-development. It seems we've finally woken up to the fact that at the rate we're getting through townhouses of character to make room for more blocks of flats, there will be very few left, very soon.
Sliema has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past sixty years. Up until the 1950s, it looked very much like a prestigious British seaside town, only built of honeycomb coloured limestone. The beloved long stretch of seafront was lined with Victorian townhouses of rarely more than three stories, with bay windows, traditional balconies, and often grandiose features such as columns and facade carvings that were popular up until that time.
Sliema paid host to an array of architectural styles, from the pompous Neo-Classical look (think the Old Opera House) to Gothic (think Mdina) to Art-Deco (think Balluta Buildings), but there came a point in time where demand simply outweighed supply and the only way was up!
When to live in the Capital City of Valletta was no longer desirable or 'in', hundreds set up house in Malta's second thriving city and commercial hub. Sliema also holds the title of Malta's main coastal resort, which means it had to suddenly cater for an influx of sun-seeking tourists, with the arrival of the low-cost airlines of the Sixties.
Up went the Preluna towers, a fabulously iconic status symbol for our post-Independence nation. Sliema was booming.
Of course when something goes up, something else must be torn down. Sliema has been in a constant state of development ever since. Residents under the age of 60 will have never known of a time their beloved hometown was not undergoing a continuous and very noisy makeover.
The pace of the transformation was so fast and frenzied, in fact, that the town that was once so uniform, so tidy, so very, well...British, has taken on a haphazardness that, in places, screams of an "anything goes" attitude towards town-scaping.
And now, still booming yet at a time when dizzying heights and the abundance of glass and aluminium are no longer avant-garde, we've come to realise that the last of their ancestral forefathers must be protected.
Many of the larger old buildings, such as a huge Art Deco corner house in Tigne Street which looks depressingly scruffy and ironic considering the neighbourhood it's situated in, have been left to rot and crumble on the property market until the time is right for them to fetch the highest possible bid. With recent permissions being granted to build higher than ever before, it's only a matter of time before heritage buildings like this are wiped off the face of Sliema forever.
There's nothing wrong with height, or modernity, or functionality, but to drop a beautiful older property is regrettable. We just don't make them like we used to!
Given time, tentative owners, and a lot of tender loving care, what were once Sliema's grandest of properties can be restored to their former grandeur, and even turned into more than one living unit, a guesthouse, a bed and breakfast, or a boutique hotel for the discerning visitor who'd prefer something a little more authentic.
Think of Valletta or Vittoriosa, you wouldn't dream of demolishing a house of character for the sake of boxy flats. And I'm sure a large Sliema property in good nick, what is actually now a rarity, could also fetch a pretty penny. Apartments are plentiful, but high ceilings, patterned tiles, a garigor, wide wrought iron staircases, wooden louvre shutters, central courtyards, window boxes overflowing with petunias, gardens even (imagine that!) and a proud, heavy wooden door with a fresh coat of glossy paint, are not.
So, with today's 'Sliema Under Siege" protest coming up, it's easy to fall under the pessimistic notion that "Sliema's already ruined", or that there's nothing left fighting for, or even worse, the idea that you'd only lose anyway. Quality of life is always worth fighting for. We might want to give Sliema, (not to mention its residents) a break, a little breathing space, and most importantly- a sustainable plan of action.
If we just put half as much effort as we do complaining into actually like, doing something about it, we might just be in with a chance of being able to proudly point out the last of the town's heritage buildings, looking their absolute best, as well as our swish modern ones to our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.