Nov 8, 2005

Magically Morphing Medellin

Salida de Laureano by Debora Arango
Click above to explore the
Museo de Arte Moderno Medellin

A little more than a decade ago Medellin had the dual honor of being the Cocaine and Murder capital of the world. Today it has lost most its former notoriety, but picked up a reputation for few other things. It has: the most genuinely warm and friendly inhabitants we have met on our travels, one of the finest Metro systems in all of Latin America, a climate of perpetual spring, incredible colonial and contemporary architecture, multiple high quality universities, and the most beautiful women in Colombia (which, as a country, is itself in the top of this particular ranking.)


So what happened to change things so dramatically and in such a relatively short time? It would do the world well if we could figure out a universal answer to this particular question.

I spoke with a couple Colombians about it and they gave me several reasons. One big reason was that there has been a huge investment in public works in the last ten years. Among others there are new downtown parks, an astronomy/childrens center and the afformentioned metro system. In 1995 Medellin opened up a city train system with one main line branching off to two smaller lines. Its an uncommon thing to have in Latin America, and considering the city itself isn't huge (about 2 million) it didnt seem like an obvious investment for the city to make. The challenge was made that much harder because the majority of the cities population, lives on the steep mountain slopes around the city.


How do you build a train up that? The easiest answer is the simplest... it is the poor people who live up those slope so you don't bother. But thats not the answer, to their credit, the Colombians take with most of the recent public works projects that I have seen. Instead they went to an enormous amount of effort to build a long comfortable Gondola going up the slope integrated into the train network. So, after paying a 50 cent admission to a train on the opposite side of the city anyone can continue onto a long Gondola that other cities happily charge tourists $5 a ride for.


I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if the city was losing money on this Gondola and the system as a whole. But in return they have huge previously inaccessible neighborhoods that can now go downtown to work, shop, hang out or go to one of their burgeoning universities. Suddenly, there are more options than cocaine and killing. Medellin took the gamble that in the long run its well worth the investment.

It hasn't been, of course, an easy path. In a square in downtown Medellin I found one of the most moving pieces of artwork I have ever seen. It is the sculpture "Bird of Peace" done by their hometown boy turned internationally acclaimed artist Fernando Botero.

... and it´s precursor.  The first Bird of Peace was blown up in 1995 by guerillas and it killed nearly twenty people

In the background you see the original statue. In 1995 some guerillas planted a bomb on it large enough to tear through sculpture and kill 20 people, mostly children. Instead of replacing the statue Botero asked that a duplicate be put next to its remains. He didn't want to hide away the tragedy, instead he wanted its example to be a part of a newer and more profound future. If there is a better piece of hopeful wisdom to communicate to this country, still immersed in a 40 year long bloody civil war, I don't know what it would be.

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