Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Library Parks Foster Community in Colombia

• February 28, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Medellín, Colombia’s “library parks” — built for its poorest residents — are bringing sanity and community to one of the world’s most violent cities.

Three teenagers are break-dancing in the courtyard of a government building in Medellín, Colombia. A boom box blares hip-hop — pure bass against the concrete walls. A dozen other teens sit cross-legged or lean against backpacks. Johana Pabon stands near the building’s glass entryway staring at the break-dancers, arms crossed, hips thrust sideways, eyes narrowed. Her tight smile, though, shows unmistakable pride. “They have this space,” she says. “They can use it whenever they want.”

Pabon is a docent at the Parque Biblioteca San Javier, which opened in 2006 — one of nine “library parks,” combination community centers and social service hubs, currently operating or under construction in the slums that ring Medellín, a city with 3.5 million people. The city’s poorest residents live in these barrios on steep mountain slopes that were settled haphazardly, illegally, during the massive urbanization of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

The library parks are some of the most architecturally impressive buildings in the city. The Parque Biblioteca San Javier, designed by Colombian architect Javier Vera, hugs a hillside in western Medellín — four tiered concrete blocks that drop vertically but also stretch horizontally. Inside, the blocks resemble giant steps connected by wide staircases and open ramps. Glass panels both partition and link the interior in a flow of classrooms, computer labs, and studios.

Within, locals of all ages sit at computers, practice ballet steps, take English lessons. Nine new mothers sit in a circle in one classroom and share advice while a trained nurse listens and offers guidance. Outside the classrooms, men and women, some orbited by children running manic laps, sit together on benches and plush chairs. There are few physical barriers and no opaque walls or sharp corners to separate groups. From every corner comes laughter; conversations overlap and spill across railings to lower tiers.

“This is a safe space for the community,” Pabon says. “Before there was nothing like this. There was no place that was safe.”

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

The March-April 2012
Miller-McCune

March-April 2012 Miller-McCuneThis article appears in our March-April 2012 issue under the title “Sowing Sanctuary” To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
March-April magazine page.[/class]

She isn’t exaggerating. In 1991, there were 6,349 murders — 17 a day — in Medellín, making it the most violent city in the world. And for more than a decade, San Javier was the epicenter of that violence. Drug gangs carved up the neighborhood. A local source shows me a burned-out house that was a lookout for one gang. Young assassins were paid handsomely for killing rivals, and peering through soot-blackened windows they often made mistakes. Factions of the Oficina de Envigado, an armed group founded by Pablo Escobar, patrolled streets in stolen cars and abducted enemies; their torture houses are still legendary in San Javier. Leftist guerrilla groups, farc and ELN in particular, recruited heavily in the area. It was widely known that anyone seen talking with them would be pegged an enemy by the paramilitaries, vigilante groups that had sworn to cleanse the neighborhood. Families ate and slept away from walls to avoid stray bullets. Some residents, compelled by fear or force, soaked up information and used it like currency, allowing gangs to track down individuals suspected of breaking the rules.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

In 2010, Colombia’s drug trade was worth $8.7 billion, and much of it still flowed through San Javier. Nevertheless, homicides in Medellín — 2,019 in 2010 — were down 68 percent from their 1991 high.

One reason is the 2002 decision by President Alvaro Uribe to send troops into San Javier in an action code-named Operation Orion. That October, as light broke over brick-and-tin houses, soldiers in squat, pug-nosed tanks, with support from Blackhawk helicopters, rushed up the steep streets. Their targets were the guerrillas, paramilitaries, and dozens of drug gangs that operated in San Javier.

Armed gang members quickly barricaded roads with tires and set them on fire. They took over homes and shot at the troops from above. After four days of fighting, the last of the gang members finally abandoned their weapons. Government troops recovered rocket launchers, machine guns, and explosives. Among the hundreds detained were 23 suspected gang leaders. For the first time in years, San Javier was secure.

In 2004, Sergio Fajardo became mayor of Medellín. A picture in a 2007 New York Times article perfectly captures the image he crafted for himself. Wearing jeans, a black shirt, and a flowing mane, he’s flanked by children. A smiling older woman presses against his side. His right arm is extended, palm up, and he gazes above the camera, as if looking into the future.

When he assumed office, Fajardo knew that Operation Orion had weakened Medellín’s criminal gangs. His government had a chance to establish a lasting nonmilitary presence in the barrios. He diverted 40 percent of the city’s $900 million annual budget to education, much of which was used for his flagship project: the library parks. He chose San Javier for the first park.

Mistrust of the government had always been high in San Javier. During the years when families lived in what seemed a war zone, they felt abandoned by those in power. Operation Orion had shifted opinion somewhat, but 38 residents had been injured in the assault and one child had died from a soldier’s bullet. There were rumors of extrajudicial killings and mass graves.

To gain support for his project, Fajardo barnstormed San Javier. He led children on tours of their neighborhoods. He proclaimed that the city would put its most beautiful structures where its poorest residents lived, that it would create hilltop sanctuaries where they could learn, interact, and relax. He invited residents to meet with architects, academics, and developers. Community representatives sketched ideas on rolls of white butcher paper. Wizened old men and 20-something women told officials that the green space around the library park had to be bigger, that they should offer movie nights, that none of it would work unless a bridge was built over Calle 44, where drivers never slowed down.

The sloping, grassy space below the Parque Biblioteca San Javier is now crisscrossed by pedestrian walkways. Every day 1,500 locals ascend these paths and enter the building. And every day government-funded social workers in blue vests leave their offices here and head out into the community. Going door-to-door, they fill out forms to secure legal documents for residents. They enroll entrepreneurs in business courses and help them with applications for government microloans. They simulate arguments between husbands and wives, then point out constructive ways to address differences. They pore over lists of government entitlements for utilities, education, and food. In the past four years, 30,000 families have received subsidies, and 15,000 children have benefited from new literacy initiatives and after-school programs.

A new gondola, the Metrocable, glides down the mountain in San Javier and ferries residents to the city’s main metro line below. There are new grass sports fields where there were dirt lots, a new high school and several well-lighted parks where there were drug houses. In September 2011, Alonso Salazar, the current mayor of Medellín and a Fajardo disciple, toured a remote site in the barrio where a series of public escalators will link residents on a particularly steep slope with an emerging business district below.

“We have achieved something fundamental in Medellín, especially in this zone,” Salazar proclaimed to the hundreds gathered under a light drizzle. “Always the power is local, central, from the community. This formula is indispensable.”

Young children dodged in and out of the crowd as he spoke, an improvised game of tag. In San Javier, there is another safe space for the community. It is the legacy of a hard-earned trust between the government and the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Greg Nichols
Journalist and educator Greg Nichols has covered urban development in the U.S. and South America. He currently lives in Medellín, Colombia.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.