Escaleras Electricas (escalators)

Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano (Municipio de Medellín), Medellín

I had been cautioned that Communa 13 is one of Medellín’s most dangerous precincts, and was quite surprised as the presence of a heavily armed police force increased as my companions and I went made our way up pedestrian paths and stairways. At the top I was greeted by a scrum of paparazzi and local newscasters, and was soon in good company with a (semi) rakish entourage at whose center was none other than François Girbaud (of 1980s tag-on-the-fly jeans fame)! How could I have not known it was fashion week in Medellín!I was wondering why I was having trouble booking a hotel room for my brief trip to Medellín, Colombia, last week. But I found out soon enough, as I ventured to the upper reaches of Communa 13 on the southern fringes of the city to tour the new open-air escalators there.

It was quite a surreal moment (and irksome as the mob kept getting in the frame of my pictures), but not surprising, really, as Medellín, once synonymous with drug crime, has now become widely known for its impressive collection of public architecture and infrastructure projects.

A gleaming new object in its scruffy context, the escalators do not actually stand alone. They are the crowning glory of a larger effort to connect neighborhoods, public spaces, and public transport through a series of infrastructure programs, including sidewalk remediation, bridges, stairs, and parks.

My guide was Carlos Escobar Gutiérrez, an architect with Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano de Medellín, a government agency fondly known as “EDU,” which is in the process of developing many of these interventions in the district. The escalator project is part of a longer procession that begins at the end of the Metro’s B line, and, via new sidewalks and parks and the like, goes up and up to the top of Communa 13, which spreads across the steep mountainside. (There are few roads here, so people get around on footpaths and long runs of stairs.) The project’s piece de resistance, of course, is the string of six escalators that carries residents 12 stories up the hillside. Shiny and bombastic, the machines, a marketing banner for the city, steal the show.

The practicality of installing and operating these mechanical beasts in such a socially fragile context is a big discussion in and of itself. But it is, nonetheless a phenomenon, and, as I am now aware, a kind of tourist attraction—not to mention a fun new toy for the local children.