I confess: I feel uneasy about “urban revitalization projects”. It often stands for “let’s push the original residents & businesses out and bring in another high-rise condo.” At least it’s that way in my hometown.
But after witnessing Medellin’s transformation into a bustling, vivid, architecturally beautiful, politically safe, infrastructurally sound city- I have to change my mind about urban revitalization. The Medellin, which I had the pleasure of living in for a month, was a long way away from its one-time reputation as Pablo Escobar’s hometown (base of his Medellin Cartel) and the Murder Capital of the World.
And nowhere is this urban revitalization more prominent than in the neighborhood of Communa 13- which was once so dangerous that police and military wouldn’t dare go in, otherwise they would be immediately attacked. Health workers working in government-run clinics would be kidnapped for ransom, as they were viewed as government agents, thus “enemy”. Classrooms had piercings from bullets and students would be dragged out of class, tortured and killed, if they were suspected of being “snitches”.
Various Anti-Government, paramilitary and Communist groups fought each other for control of the land and its peoples. The kidnapping, the murders, the rapes, the terrorizing in the Communa 13 neighborhoods in the early 1990’s-2000’s is detailed in the first-hand witness book, “District 13”.
But after a decade plus of painful civic reflection and rebuilding- the Communa 13 neighborhood I saw was a youthful, vibrant place with hope teeming for a socially and economically prosperous future.
Mind you, there’s poverty still. Communa 13 isn’t a well-off neighbourhood.
But the people we met were welcoming, proud to show off their community to tourists from all over the world. Many use their dancing and singing talents to put on impromptu open-air performances. Many run businesses in the community catering to tourists, ensuring that income gets funnelled into this community.
But what this neighborhood is most known for is it’s colourful graffiti, depicting it’s painful, blood-soaked and terrifying recent history and the hope for a better future for its children. Many of the graffiti talk about the government operation of “Orion” done in October 2002- which finally pushed out the rebel groups once and for all; however, at a great cost to innocent civilian lives.
I have a few pictures here but you need to see it to believe the beauty of this visual historical retelling.
To see more, you can check out Chota’s Instagram account. Chota grew up in this infamous neighborhood and went on to achieve worldwide fame for his graffiti art. He now gives back to the same community that raised him by running a very successful cafe, providing local jobs, commerce and a stage for young rappers (check out @chota_13)
Seeing Chota’s work in all its glory will make you go- “Banksy, who?”
At the top of 7 escalators, taking you to the top of this hilly neighbourhood
Tree of Life
Chota’s graffiti art.