The impossible mirror - Urban and political changes in Medellín. Oscar Fuentes.

What would the citizens of the city in Buenos Aires think if a candidate suggests, upon a winning in the next elections, to build a cultural center equivalent to San Martín in the middle of “villa 31” (shanty town)? And if upon surprise he states that in fact not only one would be built, but 30, all of them in the middle of the main shanty towns of our city, would we believe him or simply see that as a campaign-inherent strategy? And should he promise to build parks, sports centers, libraries, schools, housings, transportation infrastructures, etc. All for the most unfavorable sectors of the city which have a great architectural quality (not an insignificant datum), with only 25% of the current budget in our city, shall we even believe that he is seriously talking? That seems to be a joke, according to the current reality in Medellín.

Both cities have almost the same population: 2,636,000 are the inhabitants in Medellín against the 2,890,000 in Buenos Aires. Otherwise, the differences are all beneficial to our city. Their extension differs (380 km2 for Medellín against 202 km2 for Buenos Aires) and its budget also differs (1,800 million dollars for Medellín against 7,400 in Buenos Aires.) In addition, the population has evolved in a much more complex in Medellín, as in 1951 there were 358,000 inhabitants, while in Buenos Aires the population in that year was almost the same that today’s.

The image of both cities could not, till a few years ago, be more different. Extreme violence and chaos for Medellín against the image of a secure and integrated image in Buenos Aires. The comparison exceeds any government. It would be equally absurd with any municipal management for the last 60 years. Medellín, a Colombian city which has been not until recently known by its infinite violence (let’s remember the book of Fernando Vallejo and subsequent film by Barbet Schroeder, “La virgen de los sicarios”) shows the potentiality cities have when the State decides a course of action and lays all its resources in order to improve the life of its inhabitants.

The violence typical of Medellín during the eighties and nineties left its marks. The different social classes live fully separated and isolated (even the tax voucher indicates with a stigmatizing categorization the level of income of who receives it.) The richest sectors have literally fortified and have left as such till today. There are no paths in their neighborhoods. Nobody can go out walking their home. Every individual step is marked by the control of the private security of each house or building. On the other hand, poor neighborhoods have also closed, but in this case not because of their inhabitants’ decision, but for the fact that the drug dealer groups which were sheltered therein, did not allow anyone to come in or out, in order to keep control of their territory, to which the geography has contributed: these neighborhoods mostly rise on the slopes of hills surrounding the Medellín River valley, true development axis of the city.

The public space was the scenario of constant crimes (the levels of murders were only comparable to those of a civil war), if not literal battles among groups, as a result of which it was also fenced. Every park or square was grilled and was not visited –if possible- by the city inhabitants.

The change in Medellín started with the access to the government of Sergio Fajardo in 2004 –an independent politician from the two majority parties- which changed the action paradigm. This mathematician –son of an architect, as he himself likes to highlight- suggested to dramatically change the logics with which the State acted. He understood that it could not replicate the same social logic of distrust, and started to work in the poorest sectors of the city, where the worst violence took place. He did that with large infrastructure works, to integrate these neighbors to the rest of the city. Among them, the Metrocable –a cablecar of several kilometers, which goes up the hills towards the farthest neighbors- is the most impressive one, but only one of a truly integrated system. This allowed improving the conditions of accessibility to these neighbors (not allowed till then by the drug dealers’ control.) In addition, it started to build public spaces, where the most powerful action of this true politics of the State is perceived: open the city where it was closed. The parks and squares, which apart from being dangerous had difficult access, due to the typical urbanism of highways of the fifties (planning in which Josep Lluis Sert has participated), were opened, improved as regards their access, and redesigned by great quality projects. An offer of cultural activities to which minor income sectors could not access before was especially planned therein. Visiting the Parque de los Deseos –till a few years ago the most dangerous park in the city-, to see a movie projected outdoors turned into an exit both of neighbors of this poor sector in the city and any other inhabitant of Medellín intending to go.

The building of schools and libraries –which are in fact true cultural centers open to the community-, in the middle of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, broke the mistrust of the popular sectors they had with respect to the State. The place occupied by the design of buildings to improve this situation is remarkable. Schools crossed by streets so that the kids’ parents may see them in full class, organization of buildings so that those same parents may, during the night, use the labs as profession workshops or the Magna room as the neighbor show room. All including a great quality construction, with projects carried out by the most talented and active architects of the city (from which the works of Felipe Uribe de Bedout and Giancarlo Mazzanti stand out), which led an officer to state: “We are the Old Greece, the public should be better than the private.”

And all of them are essentially carried out with an active participation of Medellín citizens. This vocation for the citizenship participation should overcome the incredulity of the most unfavored sectors in historic terms. At the first meetings, in fact when officers showed their plans were attacked by whom they believed were evaded. This shows that the first thing that was abandoned to carry out these policies was paternalism, but it is also intended to verify that the participation itself is not enough to be able to produce a social change, but instead the change is especially based on the direction indicated by the State to all its actions. It is about allowing the access to all inhabitants of the city to the best life quality it might offer. The paradox is that there are rich sectors which consider that the public education is currently better than the private one, and they complain about the fact that they fragmentation wherein they immerse themselves is against them: The best schools are now in the poor neighbors, of a very much difficult geographical access thereto.

This true inclusive project has caused immigration from other cities, with which a directing plan of development is being carried out with the municipalities surrounding the city to settle this new problem.

But what most surprises about the current Medellín is the speed under which the change has been conducted. As the city’s inhabitants and the material conditions are the same than in the nineties, the power of the politics to operate, with an unusual power, the changes is perceived. Only the politics may order the community’s forces which almost nobody –except for the group of politicians and officers which took these actions forward- believed they existed. And especially when the policies of a government are turned into State policies: Medellín –which, as any city and department in Colombia, has no re-election- continued these policies after which Fajardo was replaced by the journalist Alonso Salazar in 2008 and afterwards by Aníbal Gaviria in 2012.

This successful urban inclusion project –as any inclusion project- shall find now the manner to settle the new demands which shall necessarily come afterwards, because no society, against changes of this relevance, resigns to go back concerning its achievements.

The mirror that is Medellín for the large Argentine cities –what has been said about Buenos Aires applies to the over-valued socialist management of Rosario or for the “cordobesism” in Córdoba- becomes impossible, to the extent that the government in each of them, as they are large cities –and large cities where the medium class is majority- which seem only to govern for their electors.