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Destination Medellín

Medellín In Comuna 13: Stairway to a New Era

Por: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Fotos: Lisa Palomino

Until recently, two elderly women from the Independencias I neighborhood of Medellín, located in the rugged area of Comuna 13, San Javier, swore they would die without being able to get an up close look at the beautiful city in which their loves, adventures, and working lives had unfolded. With their limited mobility, not even all the efforts of their relatives nor their inventive neighbors had been able to help them descend the 350 stone steps that separated the area from the city’s first railway station.

Carlos Mario, a musician who plays guitar, the treble guitar, and the bandoneon in popular celebrations seemed like a character in a comedy, because to perform in his shows he had to go down the countless steps carrying the three instruments. Sometimes he paid children to help him, but when he couldn’t find help, the descent was alternately dramatic and laughable: a small panting figure performing acrobatics to survive the steps.

Also, until recently, the children of Independencias I spoke about Medellín as if it were a legend: the far off city full of skyscrapers, parks in full bloom, industry, lights, billboards, and the bustle. They didn’t feel part of this metropolis because they found it remote; when they had to climb the steps, they had to take on a long and hazardous journey that was more like an odyssey.

Meanwhile, the young singles who love to dance and drink beer on the weekends in the city’s bars and nightclubs became accustomed to making the trek wearing the weariness of their dancing twirls and their drunken exploits. To see them climb up at daybreak on Saturdays and Sundays was like seeing a procession of sleepwalkers climbing towards a spirited season.

But these are just a few examples of the definitive way the distances intervened in their lives and the way the steps interfered in their reality. Pregnant women, the ill suffering both trivial and grave ailments, the employed, the unemployed, professionals, workers, students, manicurists, maids, drivers, shopkeepers, bakers, and truck drivers, absolutely everyone, was a sort of prisoner to those stairs.

For decades the residents of the Comuna, one of the sixteen of the city, spent two hours going down the steps and another two climbing up them, which prevented them from having normal days or even tolerable ones. No wonder they felt they were doomed.

History of an Illusion

Medellín has seen radical changes in its transportation system, which, in addition to being a simple display of visionary urban planning, has changed the way the city’s population gets around. Now when the youngest residents hear stories of hard times when the only means of transportation were old, painful municipal buses, they believe these are just fables.

First the metro arrived at at the end of the 1990s, cutting down distances and making traveling something graceful and even somewhat magical. Then came the Metrocable, an ingenious system of “flying cabins.” These are small electrical cable cars that can travel any steep distance in minutes; they have pulled a vast portion of the city into the present day.

But none of these wonderful innovations reached Comuna 13. Its rough topographical conditions made installing the cable car impossible, and people thought they were permanently doomed to their painful daily journey. However, some of the most skilled advisors to mayor Sergio Fajardo, who always kept up to date on new forms of communication and transportation making news in the world, made a trip to Spain that proved illuminating. They saw a very long escalator in a mall, which had a greater number of steps than traditional ones. The experts watched its passage as they talked: a device of this kind is somewhat conventional and domestic, but if it could be used for new tasks and missions, more humanitarian and civic than commercial in nature, it could become a cutting edge instrument.

Then came the meetings, discussions, and cabals in Medellín… The mayor and his advisors knew that the escalator they dreamed of had never been installed in any other poor area of South America, nor for that matter in any similarly difficult areas in Africa and Asia. The entire engineering work had to be calculated with a clinical eye. What was even more intriguing, they had to know what this device would mean for the collective psyche.

There were months of noise during which groups of workers, directed by engineers, worked tirelessly to install the device, right before the astonished eyes of the Comuna’s residents. They had to replace the 350 concrete steps, equivalent to a ten-story building, which represented hardship, weariness, isolation, and backwardness. Then one morning, to the surprise of the Comuna’s inhabitants, the escalator began operating. In reality, this invention was not something new; it was patented as an idea in 1859 in Michigan, but only became a reality in 1892 in Coney Island.

Medellín, with almost 2.5 million residents, was recipient of the “Innovative City” title in the City of the Year competition in 2013, and it has once again shown its capacity for metamorphosis.

A New Era

It was as if all the clocks went completely mad, as if time had been tamed, losing its rigor, as if the calendar had completely changed its codes and coordinates. From the first day, the dramatic schedule that geography had imposed on everyone who spent the night on the unapproachable mountain began to change, and suddenly, people had more time to sleep, have a snack, hug their kids, kiss their partner, write letters, sing nostalgic tangos, watch the sunrise or sunset, dream, look at the capricious shapes of clouds, the intensity of the stars, remember times past, get dressed or undressed, breathe, bathe, shave, comb their hair, iron their clothes, talk about soccer, or fashion or the movies, cry or laugh, keep accounts, plan for Christmas, cook a sancocho stew or beans, or make love. Homes, which for decades seemed lost in the Stone Age woke from their treacherous sluggishness and instability, made a dizzying leap through the years, and settled in an unexpected and germinating present.

The Mayor of 13 and His Troops

The life of Mariano Carvajal Guerrero, an experienced mechanical engineer, has been connected to Comuna 13 since the days when he first climbed its steep ridges as a student and sharp observer of the social ballet. That was in 1998, but for him, thinking back on this tricky period, it seems as if it was two or three centuries ago. That’s how much the face of these neighborhoods has changed.

“At that time, the days were desolate and the nights unbearable,” Mariano said, observing a clear Tuesday sky unfold in Comuna 13. “Living here was once an abysmal and reckless adventure. This was not Medellín, or at least, it was like living in an eccentric, remote, completely marginal Medellín. To go through these alleys, one had to ask permission from intolerant groups of gunmen armed to the teeth, and most certainly hostile. Masters of an ill-fated empire, the group América Libre (of the FARC) was here in addition to various cells of the National Liberation Army, former errand boys of the Medellín Cartel and the Office of Envigado, pugnacious paramilitary troops, and dozens of common criminals, including infamous hustlers, muggers, and robbers. At that time, you had to ask permission even to go out to buy a carton of milk. And unbelievably: to quell this sea of anomalies and fight similar figures, there was only El Diablo, the lone police commander accompanied by two confused and defenseless assistants. There wasn’t much that could be done.”

Listening to this story is incredible, especially when you are standing on any street or corner in Comuna 13 today. The feeling is one of peace and harmony. Mariano, current administrator of the escalator, prefers to skip that chapter, and instead talk about the great metamorphosis that took place in Comuna and in the Independencias I neighborhood.

“We made sure that from the beginning people had a sense of ownership and pride in the escalator. We had to work with the residents of this area, not people from the outside. And you can’t imagine the quality of work, determination, dedication, and intelligence of each and every one of the workers who have been hired to date,” stated Mariano, continuing to introduce some of his most notable assistants, who have been given manager positions and who are always dressed in orange, ruddy and vital like boy scouts from adventure flicks.

In this audience we have, for example, El Reggaetonero, who gives concerts to the many visitors to the neighborhood and the escalator, and who, thrilled about his new job, never shows signs of discouragement or fatigue; Juan, the “todero,” the handyman, who manages the hardware and is the master of the nuts and bolts; Johnny, who is so young he gives the impression he never left his childhood, who was about to be sucked into the gangs when Mariano pulled him into his ranks, and many boys and girls who found right there, without going down into the city, here, next to their homes, hope and a motivation for their lives.

Each of them has become a sentinel of the recent miracle. Not long ago, the escalator stopped working. Something had happened and it didn’t seem like it would be easily resolved. Mariano thought it would be out of service for a good while, but then the “kids” (as he calls his students) said that if he would trust them, they would be able to repair it. Mariano was doubtful but ended up agreeing to it. To his surprise, thirty minutes later, his assistants, jubilant, dragged him out of his office. He saw then what he thought was the showpiece of these new times in the Comuna: the escalator was working perfectly.

The history of this magical escalator would make a beautiful book or a good movie; any unsuspecting tourist who wanders through the Comuna will confirm this, whether, as has already happened, they are a Mexican minister, the most exalted bankers from a bank in Washington, the first lady of the city’s administration, or a group of Argentine soccer players.

“Seeing them,” said Mariano, “one realizes that all the efforts, inventions, experiments, and expenses that have been made in recent decades in Medellín have changed its avenues, stones, and buildings.” But most importantly, they have changed the very soul of the neighborhood. He then smiled and said, “Who would have believed it? In the end it wasn’t Comuna 13 that would go down to Medellín but Medellín which would climb up to the most hidden of the neighborhood’s houses.”