In 1988 Time Magazine named Medellin the most dangerous city in the world. At the time, the city saw militarization in every neighborhood from four separate parties - paramilitary groups, counter paramilitary groups, the local government, and of course, drug cartels funded by the infamous Pablo Escobar. In 1993, Colombia’s homicide rate was 420 per 100,000 people - the highest in the world. And Medellin’s rate was twice that.
For these reasons, I found myself cautiously optimistic about spending over a week in the country (meanwhile, my parents found it to be a slightly boneheaded idea and certainly unsafe, though the phone call to my parents didn’t seem out of the ordinary from any other idea I normally would bring to the table).
The truth is, Medellin was just named the world’s most innovate city by WSJ and Citi, beating out New York City and Tel Aviv in 2013. If you know me, then you know that there’s nothing I love more than turnaround underdog stories (Jeremy Lin, Rudy, and Tony Robbins, to name a few). So I sent a few calls out to some friends and organized a trip to Bogota and Medellin.
Here’s the short version: I truly believe Colombia has everything. Outdoor hikes with scenic views and discotheques with dance floors running until 5 am. Hip speakeasy rooftop bars (I could have been back home in Brooklyn) and hole-in-the-wall bars with $1 local beers. There’s certainly no lack of culture or history either. Really, no place in the world isn’t without a story but Colombia’s is doubly interesting.
In Medellin, we found ourselves in Comuna 13, a neighborhood once riddled with violence as territory disputes between the paramilitary and counter paramilitary groups ensued throughout 2001 and 2002. To minimize deaths of children and women, curfews were implemented at 5 pm each day. Walking through the neighborhood today you’d never know, but the visit for me represented so much of Colombia’s story the past twenty years. Andres, a 22 year old local, shared with us his story, as we walked around the neighborhood. During the occupation he was 9 years old and now he works for the city. As he was telling us this story I could sense his eagerness, as if my friend and I along with any other tourist resembled shiny new visitors in a home. The pride and joy of being able to show someone a piece of your work, I imagine, has to be one of the most universal sentiments.
We spent another day visiting the parque biblioteca, otherwise known as a library designed to bring books and computers to the Santo Domingo neighborhood. A woman working at one of the exhibits told us the controversy over having the library built. When plans first went up, neighborhoods debated, with some arguing that civic engagement related projects like libraries and public art were less essential than other needs like hospitals and the complete excavation of bomb and assassination sites. In the end, the consensus landed on building spaces for civic engagement. Why? Because creating hope means remembering spaces that were once dangerous, not erasing them with new varnish and window dressing. In the particular example below, Colombian sculpture artist Fernando Botero and the city erected an identical sculpture of a bird next to a the previous 'parent' sculpture that had exploded into pieces after a public bombing.
I think this mentality accomplishes two things for Colombia. It commits to memory the lowest places the country has been. But more importantly, it shows to both locals and foreigners how hard the country has worked to become what it is today.
We found an exhibit in the library labeled “Cual es tu patrimonio?” which translates to “What is your heritage?” Our host invited us to make drawings of Brooklyn and the New York City skyline so that we could show our own heritages. When we finished drawing, we pinned them up on the wall next to the many other cut-outs of construction paper. On them were the names of cities from around the country: Medellin, Bogota, Cali, Barranquilla. And it didn’t seem like for a second, anyone had forgotten where they had come from.