Medellín: a city reborn

I don’t have many pictures of Medellín.

As I click through my Colombia photo album I’m surprised and disappointed at how few photos there are of this city – this city which, at the time, made such an impression on me. Thinking back I remember that during my stay in Medellín it rained almost non-stop; perhaps this was why I was less ready with my camera? Thinking back further I remember the explicit warning that the manager of our hostel gave us upon our arrival: “Turn right and you are safe, turn left and you are not safe”.

Immediately on edge, I remember feeling as though I was walking a tightrope: one wrong turning, a couple of blocks too far, a slight misjudgement and I would lose my balance and topple into a dangerous situation.

I wish I could say it was just because of the rain that I left my camera behind, but I think I had, in fact, let Medellín’s reputation get the better of me. And how unfair that was – on both of us.

Catching up on the Netflix series Narcos is what prompted me to look back at photos of Medellín: as the city’s painful history is laid out and the noble politicians speak of peace I am reminded that Colombia is a country still in search of it.

While the country as a whole continues to work towards a better future for its people, Medellín appears to have laid down the gauntlet in this regard. I am too young to remember the Colombia of the late 80s and early 90s, but I can understand and appreciate the transformation that this city has undergone and the quiet determination it has taken to reclaim its urban spaces.

During the past decade a regeneration project has been undertaken and the city’s residents have taken back the power that was long held by the violent drug cartels. Public places that were once ‘no-go’ areas have become libraries, art galleries, meeting points. The outlying slums have been brought into the city by the revolutionary Metro Cable – a public transportation system which doubles up as a tourist attraction. Residents of Medellín’s hillside shantytowns, which were once so isolated, can now easily access the city centre and be part of the urban community.

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There are still reminders of the city’s sad past: in the Plaza de San Antonio stand two oversized metal birds – both are exaggerated in shape and identical except for one thing. The artist Fernando Botero, one of Medellín’s most celebrated sons, donated the first ‘bird of peace’ to the city in 1994. Just one year later a terrorist group planted a bomb in the square which exploded during a concert killing 23 people; the sculpture was destroyed too. Rather than remove the original bird, it was decided that it would stay exactly where it was, its gaping holes and twisted metal a tribute to the victims whose lives were taken in this senseless act of violence. In 2000, Botero provided it with a mate and today both birds of peace stand next to one another as a poignant metaphor for Medellín itself.

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I found Medellín to be an inspirational and aspirational place. Rising from the ashes of a violent fire it has emerged stronger and more resilient. It has created for itself a new identity, one which I hope will overshadow what has come before.

Bright, innovative and progressive. That was my impression of Medellín. I just wish I had more pictures to prove it…

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