Normalizing The Extraordinary in Medellín, Part Two

Note: This is the second of two parts on Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard’s visit to cultural development projects in Medellín, Colombia, in early December; you’ll find the first here.

Ana Cecilia Restrepo, the director of La Red de Escuelas de Musica de Medellín—that Colombian city’s network of music schools that are much more than schools, as you can read in Part One—was driving me back to my hotel on the last night of my stay. Medellín is widely recognized as a city that has successfully launched its transformation from a place terrorized by drug lords and their gangs, in which going out at night was basically not an option, to one explicitly and assertively aligned with its own remaking. See Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times piece from 2012, for instance, or this account of Medellín being named Innovative City of the Year in 2013, particularly for its new transportation infrastructure.

As she drove, Ana told me one of the city’s famous rejuvenation stories. Below, I share it with you. But first I want to tell you about my visit to an amazing cultural center in Medellín.

When we think “cultural center” in the U.S., often what comes to mind is a special-purpose space: maybe a concert hall and a smaller performance space, some meeting rooms or classrooms. Quite a few of our centers stand empty much of the time, waiting for scheduled events such as concerts to fill them up.

But the Casa de la Cultura I visited a few weeks ago, Los Alcazares, is being used in every possible way. If you click on the link, you’ll see an image of a green wall, where plastic bottles have been repurposed as planters suspended in front of the bricks. One click from there and you’ll see the mobile planting project created by artist Giovanny Sáenz T, who won a municipal competition for an artist residency in the city’s cultural development centers. Another and you’ll come to this project of Resistance Gardens.

If there’s one word for Los Alcazares, it’s integrated. In the space of a morning, I sat in on a weaving workshop and a yoga class, met a bunch of volunteers and program leaders, had a delicious outdoor lunch prepared by neighbors who used produce from the center’s community gardens to make dips for the homemade bread another neighbor brought, and toured several gardens in the neighborhood. Los Alcazares’ director, Javier Burgos—a painter, cyclist, and environmental activist—told me that the driving goal for all this creative and generative activity is to bring people into relationship—in effect, to create the warp and weft of social fabric in the community not as a byproduct of producing or presenting arts and recreational activities, but as a first purpose.

For example, the mode of gardening I saw is organic in two senses—the first being the usual sense of natural, not chemical-intensive. The second sense is a kind of gradualism: they aren’t ripping out vast lots, but pacing themselves. The gardening seems organic to the neighborhood. A little at a time, people have dug up the weeds or shrubs lining nearby sidewalks and planted edible greens and herbs along with flowers. I visited a remarkable garden created and maintained in containers on a bathtub-sized patch of sidewalk a few streets away from Los Alcazares. The inspired and enthusiastic gardener had created one of the most compact and efficient vermiculture composting operations I’ve ever seen, where kitchen and garden scraps pass through a succession of black plastic bags and worm-filled bins to emerge looking and smelling like fine, fresh loam. He said the neighbors were skeptical when he first began digging the beds in front of his house, but they’ve been won over by the results.

  Javier Cardona showing visitors his garden, Espacio Vital

Javier Cardona showing visitors his garden, Espacio Vital

Working with people throughout the city, the people I met that day are creating a network of community gardens. There’s a directory listing plants and their uses, and a map keyed to find the public and private gardens springing up across Medellín, 30 so far. Here’s a great account of a bicycle tour of some gardens.

To this visitor, Medellín seems a city of networks, with an impressive willingness to work across lines of public and private that might divide us in the U.S. Ana felt this was a distinct asset to the cultural development process:

“People who had been professional artists and in dance, music, theater, and visual arts looked to go back and forth between being in the public sphere, being in the government, and being in the arts medium. Seeing and knowing that’s possible was important, creating a generative dialogue, an exchange. It creates empathy and understanding on both sides. Giving value to the relationship we create with professional artists working in the territory, it means there’s respect. Before the government was more like the police, sort of antagonistic, but now it really is how can we make things better? Because it’s for the betterment of the programs and the work, the people and not the system, it has to be better for everyone.”

My first day in Medellín, leading a workshop with participants from all four of the city’s arts networks—visual artsdancetheater, and music, I saw that firsthand.

Now, back to that rejuvenation story: “There used to be a waste dump,” Ana told me as she drove, “and on top of it, Pablo Escobar built a ton of housing. For a long time, people venerated Pablo Escobar because he’d given them a home. In 2005 the initiative comes together where the local government gets funding to build a cultural development center there in Moravia. The designs are donated by the most famous Columbian architect, Rogelio Salmona—it’s the last design that he makes before he dies. (NextCity has an interesting piece about the neighborhood’s rebirth.) An anonymous foundation donates all of the material and all of the manual labor and this amazing center gets built. And on top of that, the principle of this cultural development center is we’re not going to run it ourselves, we’re going to ask allies to come and run it with us.”

A key ally was what Ana called a compensation union (I think credit union would be the closest U.S. translation)—one of many workers’ cooperatives that have historically contributed to social welfare through job training, daycare programs, medical and dental services, and loans. The compensation union issued an open invitation to the neighborhood to program the new cultural development center.

The Zona Norte neighborhood, Ana told me, is predominantly Afro-Colombian, including many coastal people, so the programming included “Afro-Colombian dance, hip hop, a lot of capoeira, a lot of Colombian dance, gastronomic classes, circus skills, and clowning. There’s a lot of intersections around that area, which used to be the end of the city. It’s where the recyclers live. [Note: These basureros or trash prospectors extract usable material from the enormous mountain of rubbish in the El Morro neighborhood and reuse or sell it to live.] They need to make a living doing shows in the traffic, so they learn clowning, juggling and everything.”

At that moment, we stopped at a traffic light. Two young men ran into the crosswalk carrying lit torches. Lickety-split, one jumped on the other’s shoulders and began juggling the torches. This entire show took place with enough time to spare before the light turned green to run between the rows of cars collecting coins.

Since the Moravia center was built, Ana told me, “this whole area has become one of the most important streets. It has the botanical gardens, the planetarium, the park of wishes. All of these things have grown up around it. So the public and private spheres coming together, it was like making a wonderful new dish. Now, years later, I think it’s contagious!”

The identification with and sense of common ownership of the city I experienced in Medellín goes way back, long before the present era of conscious cultural development. People even have an expression for things they consider typical of the northwest region of Colombia, especially Antioquia province, with Medellín at its center: paisa, they say, when a gesture, a dish, or an experience seems essentially local. That sense of identity is nourished now by the willingness of its arts networks and Casas de la Cultura to offer—and make good on—sincere and open invitations to the community to make them their own. What would it take to spread that way of operating here, making it not a rare exception but a daily delight?

Enjoy “Fruta Fresca” by Carlos Vives, a huge music star, actor, and emblematic cultural figure in Colombia.