John and I love public transportation and always make a point to use it, wherever our travels take us. One of the things that blew us away about Medellín, Colombia is its dazzling transit system. But there’s a lot more going on here than just a clean and efficient metro rail, a network of cable cars, and escalators snaking up the hillsides.
During our recent visit we were able to spend a morning in one of Medellín’s most interesting and visually striking neighborhoods, Comuna 13. This area was once extremely dangerous and violent, especially when Medellín was in the grip of the drug cartels and paramilitary warfare. Residents living in this hillside neighborhood were forced to climb thousands of steps to reach their homes after a long day’s work, and most vehicles weren’t able to manage the steep roads. The result was gang warfare, isolation, poverty, and hopelessness, especially for young people and the elderly and infirm.
With the defeat of the cartels and Medellín’s amazing transformation over the past decade, the Colombian government has channeled tremendous resources into revitalizing Comuna 13 and neighborhoods like it. The Colombians’ recipe for turning battlegrounds into communities? Escalators (known there as escaleras eléctricas or electric stairs) and FABULOUS street art.
In Comuna 13, a network of six escalators scale 28 stories up the steep hillside and offer a free, easy, and safe means for residents to access the city’s downtown core. Dazzling hip-hop murals are everywhere, evidence of the “Medellín is Painted for Life” project. Riding up, you catch glimpses of kids playing in the street, flowers everywhere, and brilliantly painted homes with lots of public spaces such as basketball courts and libraries, and atop each escalator is a community center for every citizen’s use. Blue-vested attendants keep an eye on things (like kids trying to play on the escalators) and offer warm greetings. There’s a palpable sense of community pride, and by all accounts the crime rate has plummeted here. What an incredible success story!