During the years that Medellin was the center of a civil war, Comuna 13 was one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. Winding up a steep hillside near the main highway, the neighborhood was well-situated as a conduit for drugs, guns and cash. Paramilitary groups recruited young men living there as terrorists and gangs controlled the streets. Residents lived in poverty, hopelessness and fear.
In 2002, the Colombian military attacked the neighborhood and killed 9 of its residents (including 3 children), and something snapped. The people of the community took to the streets waving white flags.
Shortly after that, a group of innovative residents began a coordinated effort to use art, hip hop music and break dancing to change the neighborhood. Today, the walls that meander up the hillside are covered with paintings. Youth are involved in small business development and crime rates have fallen dramatically.
A series of escalators installed by the city in 2011 allow residents easier access to the greater community — prior to that, residents had to walk as much as 28 stories to get home from the center of the city because there is no access to cars.
When we visited, young people were practicing break dancing in the street and children played with balls along the hillside paths. Tourists and locals popped in and out of a tiny coffee shop overlooking the city and an award-winning ice cream shop that sells frozen mango “pastellas” you dip in salted lime juice. The feeling is playful and deliberate, a place of pride and hope.