Medellin is, by all means, a modern city. After we overcame the intial shock of the sheer beauty of the city’s placement, within and along a valley and river amongst the Andes, it is Medellin’s level of urban development that hovered in the forefront of our minds. And it is Medellin’s history of urban development that sets it apart from other Colombian cities, for better, and for a time, much worse. Medellin intially rose to prominence in the early 1800′s as the center of the Colombian gold boom. With the inevitable gold bust that followed, Medellin redesigned itself as a textile and coffee exporting center, and grew quickly (from 1870 to 1940 the population increased from 20,000 to 170,000 people). During this period the inhabitants of Medellin established themselves as an inwardly focused and determined group who held great pride in their homeland. A first wave of modernization was spurned by business leaders who crafted the 1913 Plan Futuro, which set forth public works, infrastructure projects, and industrial development. The civic mindness and egalitarianism that gave birth to this plan still endures within Medellin today. Medellin is the first city in Colombia to fully integrate all of its public utilities into one government agency. Before you finish gasping, “public utilities….but the market blah, blah blah,” you should also know that the entire system is funded by a sliding scale means test and offers the best utilities coverage of any large city in South America at 98%.
In the 1940′s city leaders crafted a new plan to usher Medellin into the next half of the 20th Century and to accommodate for its steady growth. This plan for growth worked exceedingly well, as immigrants flooded in from the countryside. Their efforts dramatically increased public health, but also unleashed a tidal wave of urbanization. From 1952 to 1977 the city bursted from 275,000 inhabitants to 1.3 million. Newly arriving immigrants from the countryside increasingly established tenaments on the outskirts of the city, and quickly overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure and services. And it is within this vacuum of resources and poverty where violence and drug traficking took hold, eventually giving birth to well organized drug cartels that now dominate the prevailing American perspective of Colombia and Medellin. Even after Escobar’s death in 1993, the city was not free from its violent past. Drug cartels still persisted, and with each new capture or killing of their leaders came the ensuing violence of the power struggle to fill their void. In June of 1995, a bomb attack in downtown Medellín targeted a statue of a dove that Fernando Botero had donated to the city. The bomb exploded under the statute killing 25 people, with a guerrilla group, who deemed Botero a symbol of opression, claimed responsibility. Botero later placed a new statute next to the mangled dove. It is these two statutes, sitting side by side each other in an open and expansive public square, that provided us a vague and abstract sense of the stuggles the city has endured, and still fights to overcome. The Medellin we arrived in and experienced seemed a world away from the city that was mired under a murder rate of 380 per every 100,000 people just 20 years ago. (For reference, Chicago’s murder rate last year was 435 per every 2.7 million people).
As we navigated Medellin’s amazingly clean, efficient, and safe Metro system to the newly constructed cable car that provides a crucial link to city life and work for residents of poor barrios high above the city center in the Aburra Valley, our thoughts and conversation strayed to all of Diego’s friends and family who had lived in Medellin during Pablo Escobar’s reign. We agreed our minds simply could not comprehend what it must have been like to endure the constant state of urban warfare that dominated the city. Making this era seem even more alien and incomprehensible is the beautifully designed modernist library that is now perched atop the hillside of the slums Escobar’s cartel formerly controlled.
Inspite of this history, or perhaps in light of it, the general public in Medellin holds a steadfast pride in thier city, and remain amazingly friendly and decidely fun-loving. Partying seems like less of a discrete event in Medellin, and more like an ongoing regional tradition. As we have experienced frequently during our travels, the more you learn along the way, the less you know about the path that lays ahead. Before our trip it was easy, you were supposed to know Medellin as that city “with all the cocaine where you will get kidnapped and shot.” But now that we have peeled off that supposed warning label, unwrapped the plastic, and scratched the surface of the culture and people who ARE that city, things are more uncertain than ever. Of course, like any large modern city, Medellin continues to struggle to overcome its past and to close the growing divide between economic classes. And, while we don’t know if Medellin will ever fully reemerge as “The City of Eternal Spring,” we feel fortunate to have learned that this question is one which people should start asking.