Nestled in the heart of Medellín, Colombia there is a colorful and inspiring example of a community reinventing itself. Almost every inch of drab concrete has been re-purposed into wild canvases illustrating the change in attitude and ambient of the neighborhood. Comuna 13 used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín. Now it is a community healing with the help of public art and residents who are determined to change their neighborhood.
Living in Cleveland, I think we (including myself) take for granted sometimes how lucky we are to live in a city with the arts surrounding us. Many of the Colombians living in this part of Medellín grew up surrounded by the self-destructive violence that gave the neighborhood its’ reputation. That reality is changing though after the collective community decided that they had enough and they were not going to continue to live among the violence any longer.
In 2017, tourists from around the world line the narrow sidewalks daily to photograph the end result of a long and mostly painful community improvement project. Comuna 13 has literally been transformed by art; and as cliché, as it might sound, the change is in fact awe inspiring. The art is beautiful but the history of this resilient community is the real reason the murals are transformational.
In August, I ended up on a four-hour tour of Comuna 13 in Medellín to learn more about the art and the people who were working to transform their community. There are several options of daily tours guided by locals who grew up in the neighborhood and they all honestly share how bad the neighborhood got before it got better. Pick any one of them to learn more and experience the neighborhood for yourself. In our tour, a young woman shared memories of a childhood where bombs went off in the streets and homes were pierced by bullets. The houses were built one on top of another and some collapsed under the weight of poor design and cheap building materials. Not so long ago, local Colombians (and especially not tourists) would not have risked even visiting Comuna 13; and a four-hour walking tour would have certainly never been possible.
Now kids can play carefree in the streets surrounded by public art and major infrastructural improvements. At first glance some additions, such as the massive slides along the steep staircases, seem like a luxury in a neighborhood struggling with poverty. Then, I learned that the local government installed them in that location to help residents celebrate life and move forward after the death of a child killed in the street by a stray bullet. The slides, public art, and installations all brighten the once dangerous neighborhood and give people like me a reason to visit and learn about the community of Comuna 13.
This notorious neighborhood created itself a short distance from the now San Javier metro stop in Medellín. The houses crawled upward a nearby hillside with no city planning or even much of a formal infrastructure in the early days. Comuna 13 was home to roughly 100,000 people when the controversial siege of Operación Orión took place on October 16th, 2002, where the Colombian military carried out a lethal strike with the intention to remove the rebel groups. The area was plagued by violent turf wars of criminals involved in narcotrafficking in the 1980-90’s. During those years, guerillas, cartels, and rebel groups were all living in the neighborhood with little to no governmental control. The neighborhood also had locals who sadly did not have the resources to get out Comuna 13 (or to control the violence) so they suffered as bystanders while their neighborhood grew progressively worse.
Similar to other densely populated housing concentrations in South America, the bad characters lived intermingled and physically adjoined with innocent neighbors. As a result of Operación Orión, many homes were destroyed, many people were injured and at least nine residents died. The neighborhood took a beating by helicopters, the military and allied forces that attacked and affected the entire community.
The residents collectively surrendered by waving white pieces of cloth to signal defeat. This faithful act would later be embodied in several murals throughout the district with crying figures waving white handkerchiefs.
Sadly, that was not the last time that community would be forced to ban together to stop the violence. Our tour guide stopped the tour to point out a barren, earthen scar on the hillside opposite of where we were standing. La escombrera - the dump in Spanish, holds some of the terrible secrets of the once murder capital of the world. Even after the government took control of Comuna 13 with Operación Orión, hundreds of more residents “disappeared” from their homes for years afterward.
Our guide explained that the government had to make certain alliances with paramilitary groups to carry out the operation and under the pretext of “cleaning house” many more would lose their lives. People who were perceived to be threats, allegedly members of rival gangs, or simply in the way of the new controlling forces were kidnapped and killed. Their bodies were reportedly dismembered and discarded in the neighborhood escombrera so they would not be able to be later identified. Hundreds fell victim and now lie in unmarked graves adjacent to the neighborhood they once called home.
Families, in particular, the mothers, of the disappeared from Comuna 13 banned together to force the city to stop dumping waste at this grave site. They began to find ways to mourn and remember their loved ones. Public art was and still is one of the strongest. The people have pleaded for a formal excavation of the site for more than a decade with little real hope of being able to finally lay the bodies to rest. Many of the murals commemorate and honor their memories and the pain that their loved ones have endured over the years.
In recent years, there has been a clear push to move forward and beyond the shadow of their violent past. For example, multiple new government paid for social projects (such as the new shiny multi-level escalators) were installed to enhance and improve the neighborhood. While I imagine the residents do enjoy the benefits of these investments, and not having to climb the previously 300+ steps in the middle of the district, to an outsider it felt like a small appeasing token when you learn of the heavy price the families of Comuna 13 paid for these late city improvements.
The painful past is still present in Comuna 13, but it is not the end of this community’s story. It has influenced the culture and created the need for art and artistic expression to help understand and cope with the past. Despite overhearing one rather insensitive German tourist describe the public art as “lipstick on a pig, only the pig is a slum”, I felt as though the art expressed the pain and symboled resurgence of the community as a whole. Many communities around the world could learn a lot from how Comuna 13 and how they began to heal after the years of violence.
When you walk past a mural of what would normally be a delicate, brightly colored small hummingbird, painted instead to be a tough little guy adorning armor and taking back his city, one gets the artistic metaphor pretty clearly. Murals and installations such this help visitors understand how the residents have armed themselves to survive their environment. The people of Comuna 13 are not weak little birds idly standing by watching their neighborhood be overtaken by violence again. Graffiti artists, who were once just another criminal in the streets of Medellín, are now brilliantly telling the story of their collective past and enlivening the streets with an opportunity for the residents to profit from tourism.
“Medellín isn’t a model of a perfect city, Medellín is a laboratory city, where we experiment on a daily basis, because we’re tired of suffering, because we’re tired of living what we’ve lived. Because we believe it’s possible to have a better world and that we’re capable of doing it”
– Jeihhco (Casa Kolacho, Comuna 13)
The graffiti artists have found a way to share their powerful past and the community’s desire to change the narrative from violence to one of revitalization. I picture them as creative and artistic modern storytellers of folk history. Comuna 13, Medellín and Colombia have each changed drastically the past decades and violence no longer grips and devastates communities as it once did. Now the streets are filled with powerful reminders that inspire people to pick up a paintbrush instead of a gun. Graffiti is the new Colombian medium of storytelling and one I hope we can replicate in the streets of Cleveland.
Violent pasts, poverty and disenfranchised neighborhoods are not unique to Colombia. What I did find unique though, is the way they have embraced their tragic past and announced that this is no longer their shared identity. Colombians are united in the movement to change their reputation and share a much more authentic beautiful culture with the world than their infamously violent past. Cleveland is far from Medellín, but the lesson that cities struggling to overcome their past can learn from Comuna 13, is that public art by the people - can help. It is a way to remain connected to the past and give hope for the future. As public art expands and pops up across Cleveland I wonder if Cleveland too, will let art be the weapon of choice to demonstrate the growth and resilience of our community?