The Zoo

Comuna 13, Medellin, Colombia

The hometown of Pablo Escobar, Medellin, Colombia, once held the distinction of “World’s Most Dangerous City.” In 2013, it was crowned “Innovative City of the Year,” just edging out New York to grab the top honor. The Mail & Globe called the shift that happened in the period between being a pariah city, singularly known for cocaine and violence, to poster child for innovation “the most remarkable urban redemption project in modern history.” Clearly, Medellin is a city wrought in superlatives.A few months ago, I visited for the first time. The areas frequented by travelers—El Poblado and Laureles— put on display the wealthier side of the city. Hip bars, eateries and shops dot the tree lined streets. Well-heeled, designer clad youth go about their business, mixed with sorts of people you’d likely see in any other city.  I spent a few days sipping lattes under the perfect hot-but-not-too-hot sun characteristic of the City of Eternal Spring.A few days into my trip, I got off the beaten path and headed to Comuna 13, a place that used to be known as the most violent neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world.  There is still gang violence and FARC guerillas are said to still have ties to the area along with some other paramilitary groups. It isn’t exactly a safe place to wander around, especially after dark, but tourists have started coming to get a taste of the other side of Medellin, an area that used to be strictly off limits even to most locals. Built into a steep hillside, a series of huge escalators were installed within the neighborhood a few years ago to improve resident access to the main part of the city. This project is part of the broader “social urbanism” underway in the region.I rode the escalator up to the top of the neighborhood as Medellin proper spread out in a wide expanse below. The view was stunning. The escalator carried me past women washing clothes and men sitting in plastic chairs having beers in the afternoon sun.

By the time I reached the top of the series of escalators, there were about fifteen foreigners gathered,  all of us looking around. Gawking. Staring. Taking photos.  The proximity to the residents’ lives made it feel like we were at a zoo, observing from a standpoint of our privilege people in the cage of an urban ghetto. The inhuman grind of severe economic poverty is a reality here. The daily struggle to eek out an existence with an ounce of dignity is dehumanizing enough, let alone adding relatively wealthy white people to the mix, looking at you as you go about your day.

The objectification of the poor, which I wrote about recently over at The Good Men Project is a widespread issue worsened by the media and well-intentioned non-profit organizations trying to raise funds for the important work they do. Sending out photos of people living in the indignity of poverty to try to raise money for a cause, what has been dubbed ‘poverty porn,’ is one thing. Being a few meters away from a person in their neighborhood, entering the space in which they survive day to day on the price of a Starbucks Latte, is another thing altogether. Instead of looking at the porn mag it’s getting up close to the actors and staring. It’s worse than a zoo.

Feeling reviled by the whole thing, I decided to head back down. On my way, one of the escalator attendants—an unarmed security guard employed by the city—offered a greeting.
“Bienvenidos a Medellin.”
“Hola. Como esta?” I replied.

This would be the perfect opportunity, I thought, to get a local’s take on “the zoo” and hear his thoughts on this dynamic.

With my fledgling Spanish skills, I questioned him about it.
“Could you tell me about Comuna 13 and how the people who live here feel about the tourists coming, getting so close to their homes and their lives and taking photos?”

He went on to tell me a story about his friend—an artist and former gang member—who had painted a stunning mural on the concrete wall that we were standing adjacent to. It depicted the a colorful face of an androgynous being, human-like but with an undefinable sense of otherworldliness.

“My friend painted this. Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked as his eyes scanned the dramatic behind him.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“For many years my friend was in a gang. Then he began using art to help our community. Now tourists like to come see these murals.”
“That is great. But don’t the residents get tired of people coming here and taking photos?” I said, pushing my point a bit deeper.
“Some might. But most people living here like having tourists come. For them it means there is less shooting. For them it means this place is safer now than it was. All anybody here wants is peace.”

Though my critique still stood, it was much more wobbly. Listening to him speak, I realized I was importing my own assumptions about a place I knew barely anything about.  Objectification of people struggling to survive may be happening in Comuna 13, yet my critical view of what I presumed to be reality blinded me to the other half of the story, the actual experience of people living in the community. This is what we constantly do as Westerners entering contexts not our own, whether as travelers, missionaries, or volunteers. We are continually levying our own assumptions and worldviews, both conscious and unconscious, onto others.

Perhaps having camera-wielding visitors is a small price to pay for less gun shots and less blood on the streets. It’s not exactly a superlative—Comuna 13 hasn’t won an award for “Most Transformed Neighborhood in South America.” But sometimes I suppose transformation is measured in peculiar ways, like by tourists gawking as if they’re at the zoo; in some aberrant way, that, too, might just be innovative.

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