NEWS STORY: Escalator opens up hillside slums
In many urban areas of Latin America it is the poor that populate the hillsides. In Rio the ghettos, called favelas, are contained, almost barricaded, separate from the affluent city dwellers below. One, near the nexus of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, was often the source of consternation as ragamuffin invaders descended to run amuck, stealing everything not nailed down in a clean sweep of the tourist-filled shore. On my last visit the neighborhood was safer, because a new tunnel being constructed beneath the favela cut-off their escape route. A stairway partly down the steep hillside abruptly ended above the gaping, flood-lit hole. That is one way to control the problem – keep them in the slums!
Progress is defined differently in Medellin, Colombia. When public reform recognized the worth of the poorest of the city’s dwellers, gondolas were built to climb up the steep hillsides over and into the slums, with stops (stations) along the way. At the bottom was a new train station for access to nearly everywhere in the city of 2.5 million people. A free transfer is offered for the busses that continue on into the suburbs. I learned that where once it took more than two hours from the slums to work, now it takes 15 minutes and 70 cents. It is an affordable way to assimilate the poor into the community.
The obvious sense of pride apparent in the faces of the people I saw up there was all the reason anyone would need to undertake such a humanitarian project.
Medellin, Colombia, whose name was synonymous with Drug Cartel, was once called the murder capital of Latin America. It is now a city well-along the comeback trail. Besides opening up the slums by adding basic utilities such as water, sewage and electricity, the city cleaned up much of the drug and gang-related problems. The gondolas helped. At one station near the newly constructed library, there are shop-lined streets and vendors hawking their wares. Before the gondolas there were no shops and it wasn’t safe to be out after dark!
Across the valley from the gondola-accessed new hilltop library, a similar slum received similar treatment. This time, instead of a gondola, a quarter-mile-plus escalator just opened. Now, instead of more than 1500 steps up and into the poorer community, an end-of-the-work-day 15 minute ride on the escalator automatically brings workers up the steep slope home. Just imagine how good that feels after a hard day’s work! That convenience, and the concomitant boost of self-esteem, will go along way toward assimilating the inhabitants who called what were once little more than shacks, their home.
Meanwhile, back across the valley, the gondola was extended on past the library in the slums, up over the hillside into a forest. There’s a new National Park destination on the mountain top. Hotels and resorts are planned, but for now there is a lake, butterfly walks, hikes and picnicking. A day-trip that used to take hours by bus can now be reached in minutes. Gondolas do double-duty in Medellin as mass-transportation and recreation. A device primarily used for tourism elsewhere also helps to improve the quality of life here.
The people of Medellin are finally reaching the lofty goal of opening up worlds of opportunity to their underprivileged. All this while creating a fun way to get around (and up and over) their beautiful city! They are to be commended.
I was in Medellin for the HUGE Christmas celebration last year. It was great fun and still religious. They maintained a nice balance. I’m glad to see the continued improvements in a country and city so eager for them. I’d go back.
American Airlines has connecting flights to Medellin from everywhere in the US through Miami. www.aa.com
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