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A View From the Top

April 23rd, 2011 | By: Admin | 2 Comments » | Posted in FrontPage

When we think of the hills overlooking a city, we often think of places like Beverly Hills. These locations, with their beautiful vistas and clean air, are the provinces of the privileged.


Those with the means escape the congestion and claustrophobia of the concrete jungle and live outside the city and, when possible, on the hillsides that provide expansive and unobstructed views of the sprawling chaos from which they’ve been able to extricate themselves, while still being near enough to manage their business down amongst the masses.


When we think of the hills overlooking a city, we often think of places like Beverly Hills…the provinces of the privileged. But in Latin America it’s quite often different. The hillsides overlooking the city are places of poverty and hardship.

Even the metaphors of power and privilege seem to play into this positioning of the classes, the wealthy are always above and the masses are always below. “Looking down on” and “being above” are much easier to do when you actually are passing your days looking down on the rest of humanity 400 feet above the clamor.


But in Latin America it’s quite often different, whether in Medellín Colombia, or Rio de Janeiro. The hillsides overlooking the city are not places of ease and affluence, they’re places of poverty and hardship.


It’s easy to see why the rich covet these locations in our world, the views are beautiful and expansive. And they are in Medellín as well. But like many things that are beautiful on the surface, looking a little closer often tells a different story; not always a bad one, and not always a sad one, but certainly not a story in confluence with the peaceful and airy vistas looking outward. Looking a little closer at where you’re standing, as opposed to admiring the view, can be just as interesting, if not quite as beautiful.


The hillsides are the ghettos. I often hear visitors to Medellín refer to the ghettos as the “barrios”. I do so myself all the time. Yet I rarely think of Poblado or Laureles as a barrio. A “barrio” is just a neighborhood really. But in this case, with the hillsides, the “barrio” carries the connotation that an American would stereotypically give it. Poverty, conflict, danger, and a world apart from it’s surroundings.


Santa Domingo

Santa Domingo

Generally, the higher you go the “worse” the neighborhood, and the more dangerous a place it is to be, whether you’re a gringo or a local, but particularly if you’re an outsider. As opposed to in the US where it’s more likely you’ll start running into suburban tranquility and affluence, in Medellín you’ll start to see a chasm between the haves and have nots. City services break down.


The social fabric, like the fabric people wear, is torn just a bit, and in some cases clinging optimistically to the bearer as if in defiance of probability and reality. The intricate mazes and alleyways which scurry off in every direction are like the children who run freely around unaware that they’re supposed to be terrified to be in such a dangerous place. Buildings lean precariously outward and on each other here and there again in defiance of convention, and things like building codes, much less gravity.


It was little surprise then that these places became the Assasins Craddle for people like Pablo Escobar and two generations of Cartels and Bandas.

Like many facets of civilization, “Development” is the repository of a place’s history and it’s child descendant come teacher. There are many reasons for the difference in how hillsides and suburbs manifest in the US versus Latin America and elsewhere, just one of which is the role that cars and roadway infrastructure have played (or been absent from) our histories.


In the US we have had expansive and effective road networks that make it relatively easy to get in and out of town, and we have cars which make it luxurious not troublesome.


A World Apart

A World Apart

But again this difference is not just an interesting side note, or trivia. It exists because of history, and it dictates the future. Because in places like Medellín, these hillside ghettos were not simply poor because of their location, cut off from easy access to the city, they were prevented from a future because of it.


And because the people living in these places were not easily able to get in to town, they were not able to work in town, it took an hour or more to get down the hill, much less up it. And they were not able to participate in anything that was happening in town even when good things were available. And they did not feel connected to anything happening in town, they felt isolated and cut off, because they were, quite literally.


The Sprawl

The Sprawl

It was little surprise then that these places Like Santo Domingo and Manrique became the Assasins Craddle for people like Pablo Escobar and two generations of Cartels and Bandas (gangs). These neighborhoods were the breeding grounds, recruiting grounds, and then training grounds for the foot soldiers in the Cartels’ war against the world, and the Bandas wars against each other. They still are in many respects.


But it’s nothing like it used to be, the miracle of these neighborhoods is equal to the miracle of Medellín in general because it wasn’t a given fact that even when Medellín started to change that these neighborhoods would follow along with it. In fact they were in prime position to prevent it.


How then did the Assasin’s Craddle, which was destined to be isolated from Medellín and whose populations were not vested in or interested in the good things going on in Medellín brought around into the fold and incorporated into the future, when their very existence and the cause of their poverty was still going to plague their future?


“Mejor Juntos!”


The Metro Cable

The Metro Cable

Fortunately, when things started to improve the civil authorities in Medellín understood this disconnect between these places, the lack of options, and the violence that came from there. They developed a strategy called “Mejor Juntos” which means Better Together, which aimed to help integrate the people of these barrios into Medellín, both emotionally, physically, and financially. And it worked.


Again, this was not an obvious or easy path, but it was the right one. It would have been much easier and much more in line with human nature to think of walling off these places, and protecting themselves from these people rather than opening yourself up to them and making it easier for these neighborhoods full of assassins and thieves to get into your city.


Can you imagine the initial proposals? “Hmm, we are really starting to have a future here, and we see affluence and wealth and business and opportunity, yet we’re saddled with these pesky neighbors who insist on coming in to town to kill us and rob us at their whim. How shall we stop them? Hmm, let’s invite them in and make it easier for them to get here.” You can just hear the Crickets. But that’s what they did.


They started dumping money into infrastructure projects and social pride centerpieces like world class libraries in the poorest neighborhoods in Medellín. And they built the Metro Cable. It’s not a tourist attraction, or at least it wasn’t originally. It was built to actually get these people from up on the hillsides in and out of town so they could participate in what was going on and what was possible. It’s the only Cable Car system in the world that’s generally used for real transportation of the populace.


These place are not fully integrated; far from it. They’re not safe and peaceful, or icons of social engineering. But they are improving, and they are better than they would have been had people not had to courage to reach out and extend a hand to them as opposed to building a wall and turning their backs, which would have been far more conventional.


The Metro Cable From Below

The Metro Cable From Below

It is a fascinating case study in how things like development and infrastructure have played roles in our history, and how they can shape our future. Think about this, would any of us be visiting Medellín if it wasn’t for the fact that the violence was turned around?


The higher you go up the hills, the poorer it is. That hasn’t changed. At the top of the hill in Medellín is Santo Domingo. It is simultaneously a view from the top and a view from the bottom. A place of amazing life and diversity, but a place where even many native Paisas wont go.


But at least it’s known for something other than the skill and professionalism which which it’s children used to assassinate people for $50. Now it’s more likely to be known as the Metro Cable Station where you turn around, or where you go to get to Parque Arvi, or where the library is located.


“Mejor Juntos!”


2 Responses to “A View From the Top”

  1. Mucho Gusto says:

    Great article! Very interesting read.


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