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Strait Street via Skadarska Street

Efforts to rehabilitate the city of Valletta have been going on for years. Initially they tended to concentrate on restoring the grandeur of the baroque churches. More recently, external embellishments were made. St George’s Square, oppositethe Grandmaster’s Palace, lost its car park but gained open space with a modern fountain which became a popular attraction.

The entrance to Valletta was given to Renzo Piano to reshape. He did so, not without a lot of controversy. Few people agreed that a new House of Represerntatives should be constructed just inside the city walls at what was seen to be an unnecessarily high cost. Adapting the ruins of the former Royal Opera House into an open-air theatre was also frowned upon, not least by the artistic community.

City Gate, or the space for it, attracted the most controversy. Piano chose to do away with a gate and, with a typical flourish, left the entrance gateless and wide open.

As the project progressed controversy abated. First of all once a project like the Valletta entrance is advanced it cannot be reversed. Parts of it could be adapted to other activities beyond the original brief. But the new Labour government wisely decided to go ahead and leave in place the original plan to relocate the House of Representatives to the Piano building, although additional space will still have to be allocated.

But truth be told, with the project nearing completion some criticism stilled also because it was seen to be not so heretical after all. The entrance has a character of its own. So has the new House of Representatives. Piano has made his expensive imprint, and that will last for a long, long time.

That is not to say that Valletta does not need further rehabilitation, or that controversy has left the walled precinct. Much more needs to be done. It will probably be impossible now to replenish the depleted population of Valletta. Those who moved out will not return. The city’s population will stabilise or diminish even further.

But much more can be done to reinvigorate Valletta as a commercial centre – in fact, that is already happening, and as an evening attraction for locals and tourists alike. The old days of the Premier Cafe, which saw the early careers of the likes of singer Frankie Vaughn begin, will not return. But changed attractions are possible. Already that is taking place, with wine shops and small new restaurants springing up.

Recently fresh controversy was triggered by a passing suggestion that Strait Street be made like Paceville. What that meant, as was quickly clarified, was that it would be turned into an attraction for the young. It was an unhappy choice of a loaded term but what irked me most was the explanation that the famous and infamous street could be turned into a burlesque area with lots of red lights.

That is the last thing the city needs. A better approach could be to try to regenerate Strait Street on a model which imbibes from its old character, incorporating new attractions.

Many years ago I attended an International Monetary Fund annual meeting in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia. One evening we went to the Bohemian area in the old town. It is called Skadarlija, and stretches along the winding Skadarska Street. Less than 400 metres long, it is one of the best known streets in thriving Belgrade.

As the latest controversy erupted, I recalled my fascination with the street, which was a throwback to the early 20th century, gas lights and all. At the time I had come away with the feeling that it could be a model for our Strait Street.

I now did some easy Google research which is worth sharing. Around 1830 gypsies began settling in Skadarlija and the place began acquiring its Bohemian character. Poor artists, actors, writers and singers congregated there much as, on a smaller scale, we used to do on a Saturday at the Premier Cafe in Valletta, and as writers still do at the Manoel Theatre Cafe.

A writer who frequented the place, Zuko Dzumhur, desribed it as follows:

“My name is Skadarlija or Skadarska Street, however you like to call it. I am a common, steep curved alley in the middle of Belgrade and there wouldn’t be anything meaningful to be told about me if it wouldn’t be for my Bohemian history, my crumbling roofs, my shaking chairs...”

The Bohemian character has remained, but upgrading has taken place. The present Skadarlija is now a well-known local and tourist draw. It includes restaurants, hotels, art galleries, antiques and souvenir shops, and such like. It is known as a place visited by young couples and entire families with children, with the eateries offering typical local cuisine.

There lies the model for the rejuvination of Strait Street. To an extent it has already been started by a few enterprising individuals. But, yes, it can become a public project, a public private partnership if you like. If it is correct that the goverrnment owns around 150 tenements in Strait Street these could be offered for conversion on the Skadarska Street model. Owners of private tenements could also be induced to join in with some assistance.

Rather than continuing with silly controversy about the Paceville allusion, or plans to bring back burlesque and red lights, I suggest a small team visits Skadarlija and spends a day or two on Skadarska Street, in the morning and at night. They should come back brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

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