I Owe Medellin an Apology
I must apologize now for my ignorance and jadedness.
Despite having been to Colombia before, I’d let the reality of Colombia’s bloody drug war become entwined with fictionalized version in the Netflix series, Narcos, in my mind. So, despite the prodding of my friends in Panama City, many of whom spent the weekends in Medellin an hour away, I was in no rush to go there.
I messed up.
@@If I’d been to Medellin sooner, I would have considered moving there.@@ It was the kind of forward thinking city that I hadn’t known existed in the Americas- North, Central, or South.
Although the height of Colombia’s drug wars is over, I’d expected the gritty remnants of that violence and carnage to haunt Medellin, Pablo Escobar’s former playground: shifty characters in dark allies, debilitated buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, and people strolling by quickly, avoiding making eye contact-if they were even out at all.
Instead, I arrived in Medellin to be greeted by fresh mountain air and clear blue skies. Not only was I taken aback by the beauty of incandescent green mountains that wrapped the city in a warm embrace, but @@I was also surprised to find that the city was well-planned, clean, and thriving at a time when I’d gotten accustomed to the orchestrated chaos of most of Latin America.@@ The fashionable “paisas”, as the Colombians of Medellin were referred to, strolled through wide plazas and shop-lined streets with the coolness of people proud of where they were.
I was confused.
I had questions, and many people were excited to discuss how their city had taken its legacy back from Pablo Escobar with me. I’d strike up conversations with people at cafes, museums, etc. to get a sense of how this had happened.
@@The Medellin of today is an example of urban innovation and social transformation.@@ Sergio Fajardo, the city’s mayor in 2004-07, is credited with ushering in this era of “social urbanism.” Rather than wrestling urban cores away from the poor and pushing them out as the rich moved in and insulated themselves, Medellin’s radical urban makeover focused on revitalizing the poorest, most violent areas- for the poor!
I know, it’s hard to imagine given that the prevailing (and shortsighted) idea these days is that the opposite of gentrification is urban decay. Rather than choose between these 2 evils, Medellin decided to democratize urban spaces instead. Here is what I saw:
1. Public transportation. Public transportation is a great democratizer because it allows for anyone to be a part of economic opportunities anywhere. If you’ve even been to DC, you’ll notice that the DC metro doesn’t have a stop in one of its richest neighborhoods, Georgetown, because it is said that Georgetown residents didn’t want “those people” having access to their part of town. Medellin rejected that idea completely and built a metro and an aerial cable car system specifically intended to connect the fragmented society, allowing the poorest residents living on the literal margins of society to be able to commute to the city’s center.
2. Public spaces and public education. Do you see people congregating and hanging out in the public places where you live? Having grown up in Miami, I can’t point to a single public space there where communities congregate ad-hoc without it being considered loitering. Social encounters amongst people across different walks of life are important. You are more likely to care about your neighbor if you interact with them regularly in public. In that sense, public spaces, and particularly the plaza, is a tool for social cohesion. Thus, with the input of its residents, Medellin retook public spaces away from the narcos and revitalized them so that people could congregate outside again. The city is filled with wide plazas, inviting architecture, well-funded public schools, and library parks meant to spark civic engagement and inclusion. Everywhere we went, people were out at all hours en mass, watching street performers, having lively discussions, or just strolling with their loved ones.
3. Collaboration and taxation. @@Clean streets, brand new schools, and investment in new libraries, cultural centers, and social programs don’t come cheap.@@ Leaders from the private sector, the municipality, NGOs, unions, universities and even some gang members regularly met to discuss a shared vision for the future of the city. However, what I found most surprising is that, rather than wall themselves off like the elite of Haiti and every gated community everywhere, Medellín’s elites also played its part in these discussions, realizing they were much safer if their neighbors were also safe, educated, and well-fed. Because the local government involves the community in the planning and design of public architecture and decisions regarding municipal funds allocation, Medellin’s citizens willingly pay higher taxes in favor of the public interest as their quality of life has improved.
I’d left Medellin in awe of what the city had accomplished in just over a decade. I’d let Medellin take shape in my mind through a single story removed of the complexities political will, change, and human resilience and, for that, I owe Medellin an apology. It isn’t Pablo’s playground anymore. It’s doing something that most cities haven't even dared to try! It is a shining example for the rest of the Americas of what happens when everyone comes together to reject the idea that violence and inequality are inevitable.
A city that has redefined itself to involve into a social and cultural hub after the narco-wars, Medellin needs to be on your list. This guide contains:
Background history and important facts on the location.
Personal tips to plan your trip.
Full daily trip itinerary.
Links to restaurants and hotel recommendations.
Special tours and cultural activities for an unforgettable experience.