MEDELLIN, Colombia—Five times a week, a 52-year-old delivery man named Nelson rides the world’s most celebrated outdoor escalators hauling a canister of natural gas over his shoulder.
Nelson delivers gas to residents of Comuna 13, historically one of the poorest and most violent parts of Medellín. He used to climb the neighborhood’s steep hillside on foot, a backbreaking trek up 357 stairs carrying the heavy bottles. Since the escalators arrived in 2012, Nelson’s work has become much easier on his body, and he can finish his deliveries faster. He estimates the zig-zag trip up the hillside, riding one set of moving stairs to the next, saves him about 50 minutes per week.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Nelson’s financial situation. He makes a decent living, but the escalators haven’t necessarily helped his income or created new opportunities for him—although his wife, who owns a small shop, is always happy to put him to work fixing a refrigerator or installing a countertop. “I have to work less hard and I have more time for relaxation,” Nelson says. “I don’t earn a peso more than before, but our quality of life has improved so much.”
Medellín has gained much attention for its urban transformation—and the escalators, which won several international prizes for innovation, make up one of the most striking projects. During the World Urban Forum here in April, an estimated 5,000 urbanists visited Comuna 13 by the busload to take a ride up and down for themselves.
But are the escalators making any real economic or social impact in the neighborhood? To find out, I spent three months in Medellín talking with people in Comuna 13 about what has and hasn’t changed here. I surveyed 50 people to establish how often people use the escalators and why. I interviewed 14 inhabitants about the impact the escalators have had on their lives. And I ran a focus group with five members of a local surveillance team in charge of monitoring safety around the escalators. Since gangs are still occasionally active here, I agreed to not publish their last names so they could speak freely about what is happening in their neighborhood.
One conclusion from my research is that Nelson’s experience is typical: Economically, the escalators seem to have made almost no difference at all for the residents of Comuna 13. While there has been an uptick in real estate prices in the direct vicinity of the escalators, few homeowners seem interested in selling. Most people here have spent more than 20 years turning small ranchos into decent houses and are too rooted in the area to want to leave.
In theory, some people in this part of Comuna 13 now have better access to jobs in the city; they can catch a colectivo bus at the bottom of the escalator to get to the city’s Metro. But a bus was previously available higher up the hillside. And in any case, access to jobs doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more work. As 50-year old José points out: “My boss doesn’t care if I come to work in a helicopter or via electric escalators, as long as I’m on time.”
Taking a stroll where bullets used to fly
If the escalators haven’t provided much of an economic boost, however, there’s no doubt they’ve been a huge benefit to quality of life in the area. That’s particularly true for the elderly and disabled.
In my visits, I regularly ran into an 86-year old man who says he almost never left his house before the escalators arrived. Now he likes taking leisurely strolls enjoying fabulous views of the city, riding the escalators up and down, sitting on benches in new public spaces created near the escalators and watching the children play.
A 57-year old woman named Maria also is extremely grateful for the escalator. She has a kidney problem and has to go to the medical center every week for treatment. Without the escalator this was an ordeal. Now she can relax while riding downhill and hop on a bus that takes her where she needs to go.
Parents enjoy taking the ride to bring their children to daycare or to school. In the case of 62-year old Miria, it is her recently retired husband who takes his grandchildren to school daily. Miria herself doesn’t use the escalator much, but on the weekends she goes up the escalator with her husband and goes for walks through the neighborhood.
The escalator operates on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on weekends from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is busiest in the evening when people return home from work. On weekends, the area around the escalators turns into a social space. People come back from church and talk on the streets. Children play on the escalators and youngsters gather on nearby benches. A scene like that would have been inconceivable only two or three years ago.
As Claudia, a 47-year old mother of five daughters describes the situation back then: “There were bullets flying around and dead people lying in the street. I used to keep all my doors and windows closed at all times. Sometimes I could not take my children to school, because the situation was too dangerous. They missed a lot of classes because of that.”
Still a volatile area
Gang violence in this part of Comuna 13 has definitely calmed down since the escalators arrived. It is hard to say, however, whether the escalators caused this. Reduced crime may just be the result of a cease-fire between the city’s two biggest rival gangs.
But then again, the area around the escalator is much more open than it used to be, with walkways and public spaces. There are fewer dark alleys for criminals to work in.
There’s also the surveillance team hired by Terminales de Transporte, the public company in charge of running and maintaining the escalators. The team is made up of 15 young men and women from the neighborhood. They wear red jackets and know everybody. When they’re not watching for suspicious activity, they keep the nearby gardens clean and occasionally help escalator users with their groceries.
This is a very different scene than how it used to be. Cesar Hernandez, the former general manager of Medellín’s many urban interventions in poor areas, tells me how territory literally had to be conquered from the gangs while building the escalators. “We had to tear down houses,” Hernandez says, “and while the owners of the houses were in our office to sign the contract for the sale and hand over the keys, the gangs would take possession of the house and completely strip it. They would take everything of value from doors, window panes, to gas stoves.”
During the construction of the escalators, more than a dozen people were killed in the area. Most were gang members, but there were also innocent bystanders, including a 9-year old boy who was shot in the chest. “When we started there were five gangs active in the area,” Hernandez says. “When we finished there was only one left. They didn’t vanish into thin air, but relocated.”
For more than a year, the crime situation has been extremely quiet. I asked Choto, a young man who is part of the security team, if he recognizes gang members when they pass through the area. He definitely does: “Nowadays you don’t know exactly who is part of a gang, but they have a certain look by which you recognize them,” Choto says. “I look the other way when I see them. You don’t want to mess with these guys, because they know where you live and who your family is.”
Hernandez worries that the security situation in the area could turn bad at any time. “Comuna 13 is still one of the most volatile areas in the city,” Hernandez says. “If one day a gang member from one of the upper neighborhoods shoots someone from a gang in the lower neighborhood, then the truce that’s called ‘electric escalators’ is gone.”
Another reason Hernandez is anxious about the future is that the master plan for Comuna 13 has not been fully executed. The brand of urban revival that Medellín became famous for, which mayors Sergio Fajardo and Alonso Salazar called “social urbanism,” relied on connecting remote neighborhoods, creating public spaces and constructing public buildings as a sign of state presence.
But every mayor wants to make his own mark, and there isn’t much to gain from finishing plans initiated by a previous administration. The current mayor, Aníbal Gaviria, prefers to talk about what he calls “pedagogic urbanism,” focusing more on education priorities for children and their caregivers. In terms of urban transformation, Gaviria has focused most of his energy on redeveloping Medellín’s riverfront, leaving the development of the poorer areas where it is.
Dignity and pride
One thing that has noticeably changed in Comuna 13 is the number of foreigners who come to see the escalators. Easily recognizable by their clothes and cameras, visitors are quickly approached by members of the red-jacketed surveillance team, who tell them about the project and take them for a walk through the neighborhood. What team members enjoy most is showing people from outside around and taking them for a ride on “their” escalators.
You would think it gets annoying, having foreign people with cameras on your doorstep every day. But here, they love it. Miria, who lives right next to the escalator, tells me excitedly: “Now I sometimes see guys with blue eyes who speak a language I don’t understand.”
But it’s not only foreigners who come here. It’s also people from other parts of Medellín. Leida, a 29-year old woman from the area says, “In the past my friends from other parts of town didn’t dare to come here. ‘Comuna 13, that’s too dangerous,’ they would say. Now they have no problem coming here.”
More than giving the people in Comuna 13 access to the city, it seems that the escalators have paved the way for the city and its institutions to gain access to one of the remotest areas. The municipality, nonprofits, police and housing corporations have improved public services, brought subsidies for housing improvements, and created social programs for children and young mothers to help kids resist the temptations of gang life.
The newly created public spaces around the escalators provide opportunities for social encounters. People come to the street more often, and the world is coming to see them. For the first time, they are really recognized by the city. For once, there is some positive news coming from Comuna 13, and this is slowly helping to improve the image of the neighborhood. As 26-year old Soreida has experienced: “When I applied for a job and they would see that I’m from Comuna 13, they would turn me down immediately. Now, when I say that I live close to the escalator, they might have a second look.”
This new sense of inclusion, of pride and dignity is widespread among the local residents, even those who haven’t benefitted directly from the escalator. That's the biggest lesson Medellín can offer the world's cities. When people here put into words the impact the escalators have had, they use terms like "an invention of God" or "a gift." It is still something inconceivable to them. Local community leader Adriana Maria Restrepo expresses it as follows: “In a neighborhood which has had all the difficulties in the world, to put something material there that offers relaxation, that creates dialogue and that gives the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, for us that was something so completely illogical.”
In Medellín, there are also critics of the escalators, particularly from academics and some organizations engaged in social projects in the area. They see the positive impact, but they also claim that the people weren’t asked if they wanted an escalator and that the investment of around $5.5 million is too big for a project that directly benefits 12,000 people at most. Others underline the fact that all the interventions made under the name of “social urbanism” have not yet produced higher incomes in the poor areas or reduced Medellín’s substantial problem with income inequality.
But the escalators have had an immense symbolic impact and have started to pay back a “social debt” the city administration had built up towards neglected areas in the city. Restrepo is positive about the future. “Come back in five years,” she says, “and this neighborhood will have changed from a good neighborhood into a great one!”
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.