Listen to this article
A city is defined by its meeting points and events. I recently attended a very revealing and exciting event at Colombia’s Casa de la Cultura de Moravia, where the creative energies of young people in the hip-hop and rap movements converge – young people who live in a neighbourhood that in the 1960s was the dumpster of Medellín and which in the 1980s and 1990s presented a portrait of the violent and exclusionary drama of the city’s history.
On the patio of this cultural centre, opened in 2007, we could see the picture of what this city wants to be today. The musicians, who came from the previously stigmatised neighbourhoods on the slopes of Medellín, created a get-together for everyone invited for the opening of an international exhibition called “Public Space in Action”. It made me feel that our city is looking at itself bravely and is rewriting its own narrative: it is a city where we can all share the same spaces.
The country’s second largest city is in the centre of Colombia, in a long, narrow valley with a river running from south to north, contained by two mountain ranges that run from 1,400 metres to 2,400 metres above sea level. It is a city interlocked within mountains and drawn by a number of ravines that descend from the slopes towards the river.
In 1950, the city, popularly called “the silver cup”, was home to 350,000 citizens; then we grew to approximately 2m in the 1980s, and to 3.5m today in the metropolitan area. It is now Colombia’s industrial capital.
This immense migration, much of which responds to displacement as a result of rural violence, quickly and informally occupied the two slopes of the northern part of the valley. This produced a broken and divided city, obvious in its division; the city on the slopes, called “las comunas”, where 40 per cent of the population lives, most of them of informal origins, and the city of the centre and south of the valley, where the middle and upper classes live.
The drug cartels conquered the young people of the comunas during the 1980s and 1990s. Medellín was known as “Pablo’s City,” after drug baron Pablo Escobar. In 1991, we were the most violent city in the world, with 381 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants – 20 deaths every day of the year, most of them young people. A city where the life of a police officer was valued at $2,000, which was what the Medellín cartel paid in 1992 for each dead officer to the young people of the communes, where they recruited their army of hitmen.
The portrayal of these dramatic years has produced some of the most beautiful testimonies of our literature, such as El Olvido que seremos (“Oblivion: a memoir”), a profound book by Hector Abad about his father Hector Abad Gomez, a doctor and human rights activist who was assassinated on a Medellín street and found by his wife and son. Or the movies of Victor Gaviria, Rodrigo D and La Vendedora de Rosas, which relate the life stories of the young people of the Medellín comunas.
Parallel to this painful journey, many other processes were taking place. Civil society, academia and the private sector were each working to respond and find solutions to the real-life drama. In 2003, Sergio Fajardo, mathematician, investigator and professor, was elected mayor of Medellín, with a civic movement called “Compromiso Ciudadano”.
He created a political space between 2004 and 2007, bringing together leaders and experts of different ideologies and backgrounds but with the shared objective of recovering trust in the public sector and defining education as the core method of integrating the poorest and most violent zones of the city.
Alonso Salazar, author of two books essential to understanding Medellín – No Nacimos para Semilla and La Parábola de Pablo – was mayor from 2008 to 2011, thus providing continuity to this process of civic governance.
The city has become a living laboratory, where the drama of violence and exclusion has receded into the background of successes that have created some structural, and visible, changes.
Changes in culture and education have been the most powerful manifestation, reflected in new meeting places, as well as the physical and mental reclamation of streets in neighbourhoods that had been lost to violence.
New networks of programmes, buildings, spaces and public transport, localised in the northern neighbourhoods, have reunited the city, allowing people to gain confidence in the idea of inclusion.
The first step towards education quality is the dignity of space, sending powerful messages by giving the poorest citizens access to the same opportunities as the wealthiest.
Violence has not yet disppeared from our streets, but the decisiveness and transparency with which our city has started to rewrite its story, and remake its future, makes me feel optimistic that not all the loss to date will have been wasted.
Alejandro Echeverri is an architect based in Medellín