July 13, 2009
After a visit to Cali, happy to be in Medellin
I just spent the weekend in Cali, Colombia's third largest city after Bogota and Medellin. As always, I had a great time there. I have plenty of family in Cali and it is a vibrant city very different from Medellin in terms of weather and culture. That being said, I came back from Cali very thankful that I am working in Medellin.
According to my dad, who grew up in Cali, the city used to be known for its culture of civility. Decades ago, it was the most livable city in Colombia with vibrant businesses and a relatively high degree of social cohesion. Its universities were active, its business leaders were committed to helping the city and its people were happy and proud to live in Cali, an ethnically and culturally diverse city in the beautiful Cauca valley of Southwestern Colombia.
Nevertheless, recent decades have eroded much of that tradition. Drug trafficking and the violence and cultural decay associated with it dramatically transformed the culture and behavior of local elites. Crime, corruption and social decay also destroyed the social fabric of poor neighborhoods. Displacement due to armed conflict and rural poverty created vast slums all around the city. Finally, the hugely important local sugar industry collapsed, and there was little to replace it other than drug trafficking. Meanwhile, corrupt and incompetent city administrations allowed Cali's cultural life, infrastructure and economy to crumble.
Today, even in wealthy neighborhoods, sidewalks are nonexistent in Cali. One of the most immediately noticeable things about the city is that where there used to be sidewalks there are now random chunks of concrete, broken glass, dust, and trash. Walking down some major streets in Cali is like walking through Moravia, the only difference being that residents of Moravia are more committed to cleaning and maintaining their own streets than Caleños.
I didn't see much pedestrian activity, either, despite the fact that most people in Cali cannot afford cars. The city simply doesn't have the public parks and plazas that make Medellin a relatively walkable city.
Cali also has no cultural life. There is little to do there at night but drink, dance salsa and, in some rich neighborhoods, listen to electronic music. In contrast, during my short stay in Medellin, there have been dozens of important cultural events, many of them organized by the city administration.
Despite all the problems I've encountered at my internship , my time in Cali reminded me of how much the past two Medellin mayors have transformed the city. There was a time, in the mid-90s, when my family was considering moving to Cali. In those days, we didn't give Medellin a chance. These days, the exact opposite is true.
On the other hand, it is my understanding that Cali has one of Colombia's most popular and well-respected mayors. He has created a new public transit system modelled after Bogota's highly praised Transmilenio and has started to turn the city around. I spent Saturday night at a relatively new bar and boutique area in a wealthy Cali neighborhood. This up-and-coming area is helping to diversify Cali's nightlife, although it caters almost exclusively to Cali's small upper class.
Cali's challenges are huge and the contrast with Medellin could not be greater. Despite significant problems with crime, unemployment and inequality, Medellin is active, dynamic and increasingly connected to the outside world. Cali, in contrast, is economically and culturally stagnant. Hopefully, Cali will follow in the footsteps of Medellin and re-create a public sense of optimism, belonging and commitment with regard to the city.
Posted by Pablo Rojas at July 13, 2009 05:21 PM