I am already back from Malta but I have realized that I have not had a chance to give a proper introduction to my site of interest, the Marsa Open Centre. The location of the centre can be seen on the map below. It is located along many of the major bus routes to and from the main terminus outside the gates of Valletta. The bus journey from Valletta takes about 5 minutes. I walked there on my second day in Malta and it took about 20 minutes.
The Centre is located in Marsa, a small, working class town with its border indistinguishable among the urban sprawl of Valletta. It seemed as if every other storefront and doorway was posted with a "For Sale" sign. On a Saturday morning the town was dead quiet. Marsa also contains the main industrial port in the Grand Harbor and that is where Marsa is situated. As I passed through the centre of Marsa, past an enormous oil-fired power station, and into the port area the scenery changed from narrow residential streets into a random assortment of dilapidated warehouses, machine shops, and other industrial buildings. My general feeling was that this area was on the decline with many buildings that looked abandoned and I did not feel entirely safe as there were very few signs of life. I could immediately sense that this area was somehow different and disconnected from the rest of Marsa.
The Marsa Open Centre is officially located in the Albert Town neighbourhood of Marsa. It is across the street from a large shipyard, along a stormwater canal that discharges into the harbour. The first thing I noticed as I walked toward the Centre was the smell. The odour of sewage and chemicals permeated the air and its source seemed to be the canal. I would later discover that this canal was discharging raw, untreated sewage into the harbour. A treatment plant was under construction a little further up the canal from the Centre and was due for completion any day but for my entire stay in Malta I saw sewage floating down the canal and the smell was almost unbearable.
View looking along the canal towards the shipyard and harbour with the Marsa Open Centre visible on the right
A couple migrants chat in the Centre's football pitch which is adjacent to the canal
The only people around on a Saturday were the African migrants who lived at the Centre and a few extremely dodgy-looking Maltese who seemed to live in some run-down warehouses next to the Centre and had a predilection for mean-looking dogs. It was definitely the latter who made me feel uncomfortable. There was a steady flow of migrants into and out of the Centre. Some milled about the main courtyard which overlooked the canal while others sat on the wall on both sides of the canal, chatting with friends. The migrants seemed wary of my presence - understandably, as I was a white dude trotting around the perimeter of their home toting a camera - but never, in all my visits to the area, did they fail to smile and say hello when I greeted them.
On this, my first visit to the Centre I did not venture inside since I had not been invited yet. Instead, I got a good look at the extent of the complex and some of the surrounding area. East of the Centre, from where the dodgy Maltese seemed to originate, there were some very old warehouses in various states of decomposition. These had been coal storage buildings during the early 20th Century, I would learn later on, but they were now what seemed to be squatter residences and some small industries. Further east, behind the Centre and up a small hill, I came across another source of the pungent odour: a slaugherhouse. This "Public Abbatoir" looked ancient but was apparently still functioning.
I came away from the Marsa Open Centre on that first day with a number of thoughts running through my mind. The first was that - contrary to popular belief - the presence of African migrants was the last thing that made me feel unsafe near the Centre. It was the empty streets, abandoned buildings, and sketchy Maltese men with their attack dogs that scared the shit out of me. This also related to that feeling of disconnectedness that I mentioned before. The Marsa Open Centre felt like an isolated, uncomfortable, foreign place. Not because it was populated entirely by African men, but because it was surrounded by urban and industrial decay, choked by pollution, and hidden behind dilapidated buildings and busy roads. It was inaccessible, Malta's dirty secret; unwanted people hidden in some long-forgotten neighbourhood. From the very beginning, the combination of poor site choice and careless - I would call it criminal, but that is for a later post - design conspired to make damn sure that it would become a ghetto and stay that way. Some challenge.