An Escalator to Opportunity
Colombia’s decades of civil war displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Fleeing the countryside, they arrived in the cities like Medellin, only to discover a brutal world ruled by drug lords. Until drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, the residents of Communa Trece, a community on a steep slope about a mile from the central valley of Medellin, faced incredible violence. In the early 90s, there were more than 6,000 murders per year. “Escobar corrupted Medellin. He turned kids into contract killers. Everyone wanted a motorcycle and a gun,” said Carlos Mesa, a guide with Las Buseticas, in a tour organized through the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum.
Years after Escobar’s death, the city’s mayors began a program of reconciliation with the former drug lords, turning them into local civic leaders. The settlements themselves changed from illegal to legal, as the city brought in clean water and made properties legitimate with official deeds. To create a sense that those living on the slopes were also citizens of Medellin, the city financed training and education targeted at the poor. And, importantly, the city began making major investments in infrastructure and urban design, like an incredible 300-foot long escalator built right into the hill, which helped give the residents of Commua Trece the sense that their lives matter, too.
Communa Trece really started to take shape in the 1970s and 80s, said Mesa. The area is highly geologically-unstable, offering a high-risk of landslide. Homes were originally made of tin, wood, and cardboard; now, they are made of bricks. At first, the city government didn’t pay attention to this illegal settlement taking shape. “They had other priorities.”
But beginning with Mayor Sergio Fajardo in the early 00s, the city began to take notice, initiating a program of reconciliation with the gang leaders, as “many already had strong leadership skills,” said Mesa. As security improved, whole neighborhoods became legal. If a resident of a shanty wanted access to social services, they needed to have their residence surveyed to make sure it was safe, and, then, if so, it was officially formalized and legalized. In many cases, these homes were then brought into the electricity and water grid. Mesa said some houses were removed because they were found to be built on highly unstable lots.
To improve the quality of life in some of the steepest areas, EDU, the city’s urban development organization, initiated a range of projects, spending tens of millions, including $8 million on the new escalator for one of the steepest slopes. Working with Japanese engineers, the city of Medellin wanted to design a singular form of access for one of the most forgotten parts of the city.
Mesa said before the escalator started running, residents had to climb the equivalent of a 30-story building to get home; that’s nearly half an hour of stair climbing. Their commute into the city and back could take more than two and half hours in total. For the elderly or infirm, this was simply impossible. As a result, “some people hadn’t been downtown in 15 years.” With the escalator and connecting subway, the ride downtown now takes about 45 minutes, opening up lots of job opportunities.
The escalator is broken into six segments and takes residents up 300 feet in about 6 minutes. Given most of the neighborhoods’ 12,000 residents had never ridden an escalator, the city offered free training, busing people into shopping malls so they could try them out. Mesa said “some people were very worried about the escalators prior to testing them.”
To construct the escalator, the city first had to build a road. A 800-meter-long cement trail now runs in a loop through the hills. It’s open only to pedestrian, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. Santiago Mesa Arango, a representative with EDU, said this was just the first phase. The loop will soon connect other neighborhoods, itself a major accomplishment considering it used to be fatal to cross some neighborhood lines. While gang violence and drugs are still a problem, they are much less so than in the 90s.
Along the road, new shops have popped up to serve all the foot traffic. There are other great amenities for the community, too. A trash heap is now an excellent playground, with a satisfyingly-steep slide built into the slope.
Today, 17 young people from the community work on the escalator, as engineers and a maintenance crew. One young man we met, George, who goes by G-al, is also a singer. He told us, “lots of tourists come here to see the transformation. There are many artists here who have so much talent. Now, we get to show them who we are.”