How did Medellín go from murder capital of the world to most innovative in the world?

“Meh-deh-jean. Jean like blue jeans”

If you find yourself in this wonderful city in a valley, do yourself a favor and say it the way locals do. Never mind that all the Spanish lessons I ever had led me to believe that the double L equals a ‘y’ sound. In Latin America, and in Colombia specifically, it is not ‘Mede-yeen’. You will say this and people will stare at you. Seriously. On the coast in Cartagena, locals pronounced it with soft ‘jean’ sound; once I got to the city, the softer subtleties were dropped and the sound became ‘JEAN’. Just get with it if you don’t want to sound so gringo-esque. This was the first lesson I learned in Colombia: inferior Spanish would get me nowhere. Knowing words and phrases was not enough if I didn’t also master (or try to master) the Colombian accent. Accents are crucial. And of course, language and conversational mannerisms often reveal a lot about the people themselves. If you focus on those, along with words and phrases, people won’t stare at you when you talk. “Tiffany, where’d you visit on your trip? MedeJEAN!” I was pressed to pronounce at least one word in Spanish that had me sounding less like a babbling toddler and more like the locals; and reflecting how much I was really really trying, and really really committed to knowing more about Colombia, it’s people, and their spirit. 

I’ll admit, I booked my trip to Colombia on a whim, the sweet sounding bird song of an unbeatable flight deal ($250 RT). I waited until the week before to plan what I’d do and where I’d go. I was going off very detailed and insightful tidbits from fellow travelers: ‘Cartagena was dope’, ‘Medellín was sooo cool,’ and that ‘it [Colombia] wasn’t as bad as it used to be.’ Me: sweet! That’s all I needed. I didn’t dive into the history of Colombia or what I wanted to see. The only background thing I did before I was to leave in a week was read the U.S. Department of State’s travel warnings. A bit scary right? That wasn’t gonna stop me though. My ignorance of the country’s past made me immune to people’s alarmed queries ‘you’re going to Colombia? Is it safe?! Will you be kidnapped?!’ Listen. There was no mention of kidnapping in the blanket statements “Cartagena is dope” and “Medellín is a really cool city.” I was content with the info I had and wasn’t going to research myself into an abyss of potentially irrational (or rational) fear. Unbeknownst to me, those queries were valid once upon a time. Colombia had come a mighty long way and Medellín was the mascot for this progress.

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Colombia regional map, courtesy of Real City Tours. The dark green section is Antioquia, where Medellín is located. If in Medellín, I highly recommend doing a tour with this company!

My walking tour guide began our wonderful four hour shibang with a Paisa 101 session (pie-ee-suh).  That they were the people of Antioquia, of Medellín who were proud, they were entrepreneurial, they were resilient. He explained how the industrial revolution catapulted Paisaland into an accelerated period of advanced development differentiating them from their fellow Colombians who were still agriculturists and farmers at the time. 

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Hernàn begins our walking tour at the Old Antioquia Railway Station.

Colombia had come a mighty long way and Medellín was the mascot for this progress.
This perceived historical advantage is apparently the basis for the pride Paisas are known to carry about themselves. As my guide Hernàn put it, in Medellín you’re more likely to see edifices dedicated to the history of Paisa more frequently than you’ll see a celebration of Colombia.

This sculpture below entitled Monument to Race by Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt stands tall in the center of a square with official government buildings for Antioquia and Medellín. 


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It tells the story of Paisas from the time of indigenous life, through the civil war and then through the construction of the railroads. Quite modest elaborate right?

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This thing is huge, ornate, graphic, and detailed. The artist is a proud Paisa.  It demands your attention with so much assertion I could have sworn I heard it speak. LOOK AT US PAISAS, AREN’T WE CUTTING EDGE?! MARVEL AT OUR INGENUITY!! OUR HISTORY IS DA BEST!!! WE DA BEST! And this is in the middle of the square where government is conducted for the city and the greater province.

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I wondered why I should care about Paisas’ regional pride. Of all the conflict, violence, war, and drama that has played out in this country, was it important that this be the first thing to know about the real Medellín? The answer is a resounding yes.

This pride, this enduring spirit of victory and undying attachment to the innovation of the past, is terribly relevant to the Medellín of today. There is no “Medellín is cool” without first understanding the former prominence these people and this city once enjoyed in the previous century.


Any quick google search about this city will likely yield two prevailing facts: 1) Medellín was once donned the most dangerous city in the world and 2) a few years ago, it was voted most innovative city in the world. The time between these two incidents is a mere 20ish years. That’s kind-of-a-helluva comeback. If you’re not impressed, go take a ride on google search. You’ll find references to the yesteryears of Pablo Escobar, drug wars, and corruption, to the present reality: a city that employed a model approach to redevelopment and reclaiming  the city’s identity. 

I could be projecting, but any city that has over 6,000 homicides annually, can’t possibly NOT feel like a war zone. It felt like a miracle and a blessing to walk the streets of this city.And to think, I was walking among people who had gone from living in fear, suspicion, uncertainty, and tyranny, to what it is today – a place to be proud of, a hub of innovation, a city deserving of its resilient and lively people.

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It is a city of 2.5 million people (3.5 metro area) vastly sprawling upward from the valley along the surrounding mountainous terrain. The city’s hills are buzzing with life. The sounds of children, motor bikes, booming music and soccer games are vivid. I got to walk through the streets on my excursion to the infamous outdoor escalators. I hadn’t heard of them until I got here, but am so glad I went.


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Why escalators? Why this neighborhood? Why these people? San Javier, or Comuna 13, was once the city’s most dangerous and violent neighborhood. Because of its proximity to a major highway leading in and out of the city, control of this neighborhood fueled years of cartel violence. It is also so steep in certain places that once upon a time, getting in and out of it meant climbing or descending 300+ steps (equal to a 28 story building) before reaching a point accessible to cars. The city decided to make this commute easier by installing a set of outdoor escalators (broken up into sections, so don’t expect to see a super long escalator), surrounding them with public murals, plants, and staff in red jackets to man the thing. Seeing escalators outside in and of themselves, is not necessarily a mind blowing thing. But then again, you don’t usually see escalators in a poor neighborhood that remains in the throes of leaving its violent past behind. You can expect to see them in malls, in office buildings, and at airports, but in your local ‘no-go’ neighborhood? Yeah, no. By plopping these machines, these symbols of investment, down in a neighborhood that isn’t economically booming, escalators are then presented as something else: a viable mode of transport for them, today, even while the neighborhood struggles to move past its past. The novelty here is all about the juxtaposition.


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It doesn’t stop at escalators. There are public libraries, the country’s first and only metro (constructed during tumultuous years in the 80s and 90s), a free bikeshare program for locals, reconstituted public plazas, and many many other advancements. It is for all of these reasons that Medellín is often propped up as a Mecca for urban innovation: the ultimate economic development experiment gone right, a Phoenix soaring above the ashes of decades of political instability. A city in a country mired in its violent past, Medellín has made great strides to bring all residents along in its quest for innovation and conquering the demons of yesteryear.

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The beauty of it all is that they did it for the Paisas, not the Gringo tourist. The investments made in their city are for those who live there, who have been there, and who will be there for the long haul. While they’ve made the city quite accessible and easy to navigate for visitors like me, it did not feel constructed to cater to me. Not to my interests, my limited Spanish skills, or my tastes. Sure you tourist person, please enjoy our beautiful city that we are so proud of having brought it back from a dark past; but no tourist person, this precious city of ours is still ours for the taking, not yet here to absorb your favorite cuisines, franchises, and affinity for speaking English or bad Eurocentric Spanish. We are Colombian. We are Paisa. Welcome. Get with it.

A city that has been thrust onto the world stage for its comeback still manages to feel local and proud of its own Paisa-ness. So much so that I wanted to get the language right and marvel at their ingenuity of times past and present. They rebuilt their city on a big bet that improving the lives of their own would yield great rewards. Such progress in the landscape of urban revitalization is mind-bending. The hundreds more who voted them as being most innovative city in the world, (beating out finalists NYC and Tel Aviv) believe this to be true too. It’s as mind-bending as the mythological bird that bursts into flames before roaring back to life and soaring boldly above the impossibility of rebirth.

Below, two statues of one of the most famous artists in the world, Fernando Botero. He is a proud Paisa and Medellín native. The bird in the back was the site of a tragic bombing in this public square during a major music festival in 1995. 30 people were killed and hundreds more injured. Botero urged the Mayor to leave the bombed out sculpture in the square as a symbol of people’s resilience and their enduring spirit. The other bird is standing tall, ready to soar. Seemingly more modest than the Betancourt statue, but absolutely making a similar assertion about Paisa pride, resilience, and spirit.

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As I prepared to return from my trip, I began seeing ads for Netflix’s new original series “Narcos.” People are raving about it. I might finally watch it to kickstart that pre-trip research of the old Colombia that I never did. 

 

[inquire] Can you think of a time you visited a place and was taken aback by the spirit of its people? Maybe they carried themselves with a visceral pride? They walked with elegance and grace? Perhaps they felt cold or standoffish? Did you feel changed or affected by it?

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