Medellin’s Escalator of “Progress”

For Marx, the escalator of historical progress inevitably led to communism. From feudalism through capitalism, the destination was fixed and the ascent, continuous; of course, the rupture happened and the rise flattened out. The escalator, both as metaphor and, later, as a technology, was reappropriated by and integrated into the capitalist model of history. This history is not one so much of progress, but one of accumulation, a horizontal field characterized by peaks of self-induced barriers and crises which, following David Harvey, are transcended only by financial innovations–capitalism as the source of and answer to global economic woes and sociopolitical injustices.

A tentative definition of progress does, however, exist in this model – in the form of material improvements of living conditions, precipitated by the development of new technologies and transparent, “democratic” forms of communication and their integration in regions previously lacking in them. The new 1,260 foot-escalator in Comuna 13 of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city and also one of it’s poorest and most violent urban communities, is representative of these improvements. The escalator replaces a series of stairways climbing the hillside shantytown, significantly cutting the hike time–the equivalent of scaling a 28-story building–from 35 minute to just six. The new public infrastructure cost $6 million and is part of large-scale regeneration project initiated by the neighborhood. As the Daily Mail reports, both city officials and the community are thrilled with the result, as are foreign interests, with studies being undertaken by Rio de Janeiro for use in the city’s favelas.

The escalator, which is broken up into a series of six pieces mounted onto the hillside, is jarring in its appearance, its shiny veneer contrasting with the dilapidated structures around it. It thus explicitly functions as a harbinger of urban renewal, a promise of the town’s imminent recovery and the revitalization of Medellin’s housing and public spaces. Yet it’s also important to treat these kinds of projects carefully, remembering that this is how gentrification and the transmogrification of such communities begins.

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

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