All towns and cities evolve as time goes by. Towns that treasure their heritage may at some point see their economic, social or religious importance diminish but remain proud of their past historical or cultural roles.
After all, culture is not just about impressive palaces, churches, paintings and other art forms. It is also about the contribution a town gives to the socio-economic development of its community.
The award of ‘first capital of culture’ to the harbour town of Marsa may have surprised some who associate it with urban degradation. This is mainly due to the presence, until recently, of a fully functioning and polluting power station, the presence of a migrants’ centre and a reputation of high urban criminality.
But Marsa is much more than this. This town has always played a vital role in the country’s history as it is the most sheltered part of the Grand Harbour area. Unfortunately, this has also meant it was the most accessible venue for foreign invaders to land and causetrouble.
Marsa played an essential part in the Great Siege. In more recent times it served as a berthing place for small British military vessels. It also had the first industrial estate when Malta transformed its economy based on military activities to light and heavy industry. Until recently, Marsa had a sizeable shipbuilding facility that trained thousands of workers in valuable trades despite its economic travails.
The Ministry of Culture’s decision to award the first capital of culture status to Marsa could act as a stimulus for the regeneration of this town after decades of decline. Marsa mayor Josef Azzopardi said the town has a vast array of events lined up, ranging from painting and sculpture to larger events, including on the waters of the Grand Harbour.
One hopes that this renewed interest in a significant historical town goes beyond firework displays, musical shows and exhibitions. Admittedly, a budget of €200,000 may not be enough to invest in a meaningful way in the regeneration of this town. There are some remarkable examples of how harbour towns like Belfast, Birmingham and Liverpool in the UK have been regenerated thanks to a solid political will to enrich the lives of those who live in these once prominent maritime industrial hubs.
It is regrettable, for instance, that Malta still does not have a shipyards museum when one considers that in the mid-20th century, a large proportion of workers were employed in the two shipyards. Marsa could be an ideal location for such a museum, which would undoubtedly attract tourists looking for an authentic local cultural experience beyond what one can find in our magnificent churches and auberges.
One would like to think that the selection of Marsa is much more than a public relations stunt by the minister of culture, whose electoral district includes this town. Investment in all forms of culture often takes a long time to bear fruit in the form of a revival of communities suffering from social and economic neglect.
In the longer term, another initiative that should boost Marsa is the planned regeneration of the Grand Harbour, with the power station area one of those earmarked for new land use. Under the plans, for example, a themed promenade, called the ‘Grand Harbour Outdoor Museum’, will link St Elmo to Marsa, complete with beautified streetscapes and recreation and cultural activities.
The people of Marsa, like those of any other town or village in Malta, deserve to feel safe from urban crime and surrounded by an environment that is pleasant and welcoming.