It is difficult to grasp the immensity of the tragedy that has occurred in Comuna 13 during a past that seems, in many ways, distant, but also so recent. Comuna 13 is a place that bombards the senses and emotions. For me, it was an experience that evoked feelings of sadness, as well as joy and inspiration. Once considered to be the most dangerous neighborhood, in the most dangerous city in the world, Comuna 13 has experienced a remarkable revitalization.
We had the wonderful opportunity to go on a guided tour of Comuna 13 through Toucan Café & Tours. They connected us with two guides who took us on the tour, including a local who lives and grew up in the neighborhood. After completing a delightful street food tour of Medellín, the guide who took us on that tour brought to San Javier station, on Line B of the Medellín Metro, to start our tour of Comuna 13. The reputation of Comuna 13’s violence is no doubt legendary. Perhaps for that reason, while we traversed the Medellín Metro, he assured me that the only danger I would face would be running out of space on the SD card for my camera.
When we arrived at San Javier station, we met up with the local guide. I was immediately awe-struck by his poise, and the way he spoke captivated me. Interacting with him, and listening to what he had to say connected me with the essence of the neighborhood on a deeper level than I had imagined. The past history of Comuna 13 is, perhaps, emblematic of a not-so-distant troubled chapter of Colombia’s history. He created a narrative for us, regarding the violent and sad history of Comuna 13. He provided gripping insight into how some of Colombia’s notorious guerilla groups – particularly FARC – established bases of operations in the neighborhood. In 2002, the Colombian military conducted 22 operations, to crack down on guerilla activity. The fact that this aspect of Comuna 13’s history was told from the perspective of someone who lived through it, added an intensely humanizing aspect of the tour.
If Comuna 13 is emblematic of a troubled chapter in the nation’s history, it is also emblematic of something else: the astonishing transformation into the beautiful, friendly, forward-thinking nation that Colombia is today. The experience that we got was one where we witnessed a breakdancing competition, and children playing in the streets, rather than having to constantly be on alert for stray bullets from gun battles, as was the case in the past. There is even a giant slip n’ slide, which we took full advantage of.
I was inspired on a profound level by the street art, which can be seen all over Comuna 13. It is something that is used to depict the tragedy and grief, connected with the past. It is also used to depict the success that the neighborhood has achieved in recent years, as well as hope for the future. It blends those two forces together beautifully.
Medellin has seen a wave of infrastructure spending in recent years. It has resulted in Colombia’s first metro system, as well as cable cars, which connect the main part of the city with neighborhoods in the mountains overlooking the city, which used to be poor and hotbeds for violence. During its conquest of the violence and poverty that has plagued the city, through urban renewal, Medellin has implemented an ingenious transportation method: an escalator. It could be said that the establishment of the escalator, which better connects the neighborhood with the rest of the city, is the face of the recent achievements in revitalizing Comuna 13.
I have never seen a neighborhood brimming with as much life, and unbridled love of life, as Comuna 13. It was truly inspiring.