How Gondolas and Hip Hop Transformed the Most Dangerous City in the World
Medellín went from being ground zero of Colombia's drug war to UN poster child for urban equality—and the people made it happen, by designing the city they wanted.
This article appears in Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.
“I’m sorry about the look of that house, we haven’t gotten around to painting it yet.” The woman leading us down the steep hillsides of the Comuna 13 neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia, is pointing at the lone faded building in a row of homes that looks like a tidy, earth-tone color guide.
My friends and I—visiting Medellín for the United Nation’s Seventh World Urban Forum—are riding down escalators that have replaced 357 arduous steps. Luminous murals cover the walls below us, while above are flower-filled planters and skylights. At the end of each flight there are public patios where kids play soccer and people sit on benches to enjoy the view. Meanwhile, the escalator stereo plays Frank Sinatra singing “I did it my way.”
There’s something uplifting about an apology for a matter as small as an unfinished paint job in this neighborhood. Until a few years ago, residents here kept their doors and windows shut against the bullets exchanged by street gangs. Our guide Maria, one of the young people who work on the neighborhood’s escaleras eléctricas security and maintenance crew, is also a community ambassador and docent. She tells us how her community collaborated on the international prize-winning design for the escalators and how much life has improved in her neighborhood since the completion of the project in 2012. “There used to be a lot of stairs,” she says, “but now people with disabilities, the elderly, and kids— who have to make frequent trips to school—have a lot more mobility.”
The “Medellín Miracle”—the city’s transformation from most dangerous city in the world in the 1980s to current U.N. poster child for urban equity—draws more than just foreign visitors. Juliana, one of our Couchsurfing hosts, is a Medellín native who lives just one barrio north of here and has traveled the world. She had never set foot in Comuna 13 until today. Now she and Maria are chatting about food and art like old friends.
Gondolas and massive escalators mean the hillside communities of Comuna 13 are no longer isolated from the rest of the city. Photo from Creative Urban Projects and Rex Features.
Collapse and rebirth of Medellín
It’s not uncommon for a city to become so ghettoized that a visit to an adjacent neighborhood is less likely for many residents than a trip to a foreign country. The number of cities with populations over 750,000 has quadrupled in the last 50 years. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. Rapid growth often brings increased spatial and social inequalities, as poor immigrants from rural areas settle in unplanned and unregulated urban peripheries. With regional and global economic, political, and environmental dynamics driving migration, cities are often faced with large waves of disenfranchised people.
That was the case for Medellín. Nicknamed “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild year-round mountain-valley climate, the city’s history of disjointed urban growth is linked to Colombia’s struggles. From the collapse of the coffee market in the 1930s to the country’s brutal civil war in the 1950s and the infamous drug wars two decades ago, rural Colombians have fled to Medellín to escape violence and find economic opportunity.
Medellín’s population tripled between 1951 and 1973, and has almost tripled again since. As in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, much of the growth occurred along the city’s steep hillsides, where new arrivals desperate for shelter built the ramshackle houses that define Medellín’s poorest communities. These streets were used as a refuge by armed guerrilla and paramilitary groups fighting to dominate the booming cocaine market in the 1980s. A weak local government—there were 49 mayors between 1948 and 1988—was unable to provide any kind of regulation or security. The city’s poor were stuck in a war zone, and everyone else barricaded themselves behind walls and barbed wire.
With 6,349 murders in 1991 alone, Medellín had been in crisis for years by the time drug warlord Pablo Escobar was killed by Colombian special forces in 1993. While gunfights between right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas raged on, things began to improve with a new Colombian constitution that gave city governments new autonomy to base urban planning on citizens’ needs. Aspiring to rebuild as a “City for Life,” Medellín began its celebrated urbanismo social (social urbanism) agenda, aiming for genuine civic engagement, participatory democracy, and solidarity.
The Integrated Slum Upgrading Program of Medellín (PRIMED) in 1993 was a radical departure from traditional forms of city planning in that it drew on full community participation. In addition to building schools, incorporating and upgrading existing houses, installing street lights, and expanding public services, PRIMED led to the construction of a system of paths with railings that dramatically improved residents’ mobility.
Colombia’s first metro system, launched in 1995, soon connected downtown Medellín with San Javier in the heart of Comuna 13. The government also began investing in cultural and social programs for youth. By the late 1990s, the city started participatory budgeting, a process by which 5 percent of the city’s budget is allocated by residents of each neighborhood, often in support of local health, education, or art projects.
Perhaps most significantly, before any of these public-works projects were established, the city’s marginalized communities were remaking themselves. Comuna 13 in particular, ground zero of gang wars to this day, has produced a long line of hip-hop and graffiti artists who protest the militarization of their neighborhood with messages of civic participation, social justice, and peace.
“We were building this city long before the government arrived,” says EL AKA, a rapper from La Trece (as locals refer to Comuna 13) who calls for the recovery of open space and urban agriculture in his music. He says creative projects like the murals, urban gardens, hip-hop collectives, and cultural arts nonprofits have been major factors in building a new identity and bringing dignity to the most isolated, neglected, and impoverished parts of the city.
Popular hip hop artist EL AKA pictured in a Héroes 13 mural says creative projects like the murals urban gardens hip hop collectives and arts nonprofits have been major factors in building a new identity and bringing dignity to the most isolated neglected and impoverished parts of the city. Photos from Pazamanos Foundation.
Transformation of space and mind
In 1999, Sergio Fajardo, a math professor dissatisfied with the government’s piecemeal approach to reform, founded an independent civic movement, the Citizens Commitment Group (Grupo Compromiso Ciudadano, or GCC). Its members believed the only lasting way to break cycles of ingrained violence and poverty was to integrate the most isolated neighborhoods into the rest of the city’s physical and social fabric. Instead of giving alms to the poor, the idea was to give them improved streetscapes and state-of-the-art public transit, parks, libraries, schools, and cultural centers.
Campaigning on the slogan “Medellín: from fear to hope,” GCC swept Fajardo into the mayor’s office in 2003. His administration broadened the scope of changes through an Integral Urban Project strategy (Proyecto Urbano Integral) to create inspiring living spaces and symbols of empowerment. In 2004, the new Metrocable, a gondola system traditionally used in ski resorts, opened service with a 1.8 kilometer line to the eastern barrio of Santo Domingo, followed in 2008 by a 2.7 kilometer line connecting the hillside communities of Comuna 13 with the Metro stop in San Javier.
The stunning gondola ride not only reduced commute times by hours, it gave residents like Maria a sense of local pride. “The Metrocable, just like the escalators, has been great for Medellín,” she says, “not just because they made life easier for us but they’ve improved our reputation in the world.”
Fajardo’s vision of connecting the informal with the formal city was rooted in his belief that education, in the broad sense of the term, has the power to open doors. “Many people in our society have a wall in front of them. … Our challenge has been to open doors in that sealed wall, so that people can pass through and participate in the construction of hope. What is hope? When someone in the community sees a path they can follow.”
The centerpieces of Fajardo’s plan, the city’s new parques biblioteca (library parks), were funded with the help of Medellín’s city-owned public utility company, Empresas Públicas de Medellín, which donates about 30 percent of its annual profits to social investment projects. A combination of library, green space, cultural center, and town square, five of these architectural gems—located in the most neglected parts of the city—opened between 2005 and 2008.
Books are just part of the public treasure that is Parque Biblioteca San Javier in the heart of Comuna 13—it’s a community hub where people gather, learn, and play, aided by inspiring architecture, lots of light, and open space. On the day of our visit, a group of teenagers practiced a dance in the main courtyard, while the classrooms, computer labs, and meeting halls were filled with studious individuals, groups, and families.
“The library park here has been spectacular,” said Amparo Guerra, a woman who lives nearby. “The classes, the libraries, the internet access, and all the other services and activities offered to the community have been so helpful. People who never had the resources now have a lot of opportunities, and everyone is welcomed and treated the same way, regardless of their social class. It truly is total social inclusion.”
An escalator carries pedestrians up a steep hill in Comuna 13. Photo from Creative Urban Projects and Rex Features.
The power of participation
Medellín’s transformation is still only half a miracle. Over the past five years, gangs have murdered ten hip-hop activists whose work advocated nonviolence. There are social land mines here that can’t be defused with gondolas, escalators, and libraries alone.
“I think all the government projects are good in a sense,” says Juan Carlos Anadón, Project Coordinator for the nonprofit Fundación Pazamanos. “But things are really complex when you work in the trenches of social development. You have to have flexibility to address problems you find along the way, which people who work in government often don’t have.”
That “work in the trenches” is recognized by Fundación Pazamanos’ crowdfunded Héroes 13 campaign, gigantic posters of La Trece leaders who offer alternative visions to kids and teenagers in a community with few resources. EL AKA is one of the heroes, featured in a triptych captioned “Yo me llamo AKA, no como el arma AK, sino como AKA disparador de rimas,” “My name is AKA, not like the gun AK, but like AKA the slinger of rhymes.”
“There are such heavy barriers that keep people from connecting,” Anadón says of the stigma of poverty and violence residents still endure, notwithstanding the positive impact of the escalators. He says the international attention on projects like escalators paints a somewhat distorted picture of who is driving grassroots changes, as well as of the many struggles that still exist. “The government likes these kinds of projects because it can show them to the world and win ‘Most Innovative City’ awards,” he says. “But there are still people being killed here. We don’t care about being innovative just because we have an escalator. We want to know what the priorities are.”
EL AKA agrees that the city is too focused on their pet projects rather than much-needed services. “The library parks are great, but the problem is the way the city runs them. There are no nighttime activities, the security is excessive, and the territorial division of the programs is not appropriate.”
With the buzz from the World Urban Forum wearing off, the city is poised to push ahead with its 46-mile, $260 million Metropolitan Green Belt and $160 million Medellín River Park. No doubt these massive projects will benefit the city as a whole—economically, environmentally, and socially. But Anadón feels grassroots groups like Pazamanos that have a more horizontal relationship with the community provide an important alternative to big government projects. “I think we’ve received such good responses because people are getting tired of all the interventions all the time. We are friends and they understand our logic. We never think we have all the right answers. It’s more about trying to see through their eyes.”
In Anadón’s view, a miracle really is happening in Medellín, but it’s much more gradual, subtle, and people-powered than the effusive odes to libraries and escalators would have you believe. “Even though the government and rule of law has been missing for most of the people in Medellín for a long time—and the city is trying to fix that—the people are still trying. They’re resilient. They are tired of the situation and they’re trying to find new ways to go forward, and often those ways are through art.”
Photo from Pazamanos Foundation.