Join me as I discover Comuna 13 in Medellín Colombia – once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city that transformed itself against all odds to become a beacon of art, culture, and urban development.
Comuna 13 was once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín, plagued with violence by drug cartels, local gangs, and guerrilla warefare, all of who saught control of its strategic location in the drug trafficking business.
Even 20 years after Pablo Escobar's death, the community still struggled with violence, crime, and homidicide.
But since the installation of a 6 minute, 384-meter orange-roofed escalator that scales the mountain in six sections, things are on the up and up for this barrio as Comuna 13 undergoes a community wide transformation into one of the most artistically and culturally rich neighborhoods in Medellin – where the residents are focused on leaving the past behind.
Opened in 2011, the escalators serve as beacons of urban renewal – a curious form of public transportation found in the most unlikely of places.
At the top, is where you'll find a city wide street art project showcasing incredibly intricate graffiti from local community artists.
The graffiti has allowed local artists to share their passion for the art. It has been a big hit with the community and a positive influence for the comuna's youth, who have previously had limited opportunities in the past due to discrimination against the barrio in which they live.
The public art also serves as a historical record with many of the murals documenting Medellín’s violent past. The local government has been actively involved in this project and in recruiting and funding local artists to create installations. The art and the escalators were the project of Medellin's former Mayor Anibal Gaviria, who deemed the transportation system of Medellin as a great uniting force that doesn't just unite the city geographically but also unites different social strata, eliminates barrios, and generates a sense of belonging within the Medellin citizens.
Prior to the escalators, Comuna 13's twelve thousand residents had to hike the equivalent of 28 stories to and from the city each day to get to work. Steep roads made it impossible for cars and buses to access this neighborhood, leaving the community isolated and impenetrable.
Architect Carlos Escobar, no relationship to Pablo Escobar, came up with the idea. He said, “Nobody trusted that this project would be possible. Before, this area was under the control of gangs. Right now, this area [has] become a neutral zone. The control is in the community's hands.”
For me, when I told my friends and family that I was headed to Medellin Colombia, I was met with the same reaction from everyone which was, “Be careful.”
But I know that the people of Medellin Colombia aim to leave their violent past behind them and work towards a peaceful, happy, and prosperous future.
17th Century English Bishop Joseph Hall said, “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.”
And nothing could be more true of Comuna 13, which is why the local community has spent the last few years painting over those cracks.