Bogotá – the Decades of Transformation*

plaza bolivarby Ares Kalandides

When, in 2012 UNESCO decided to include Bogotá in the network of creative cities, the surprise was huge: the city of drugs and kidnapping, of violence and of civil war, a “creative city”? Yes, it is hard to believe that Bogotá was once called “Athens of South America»”(Atenas Suramericana) because of its richness in local poetry. Culture in all its expressions accompanies this divided and so contradictory city of approx. 8 million inhabitants.

Public libraries belong to the most impressive buildings of the city. Some of them are works by famous architects and are located in the poorest parts of Bogotá. They constitute an alternative public space with a low threshold, offering programmes and services above all to the neighbouring communities – beside their region-wide importance. Small libraries function at the terminals of the rapid transit bus system, the famous Transmilenio, which give passengers the possibility to take with them a book for the long journey.

Biblioteca Virgilio Barco

Biblioteca Virgilio Barco

Busses are the means of transportation for the poor and the lower middle classes – but not of the very poor. It is estimated that about one fourth of Bogotá’s population lives under the poverty line, often in informal settlements at the city’s fringes. Many of them are refugees, displaced people from a land that has been suffering from several decades of a war between drug merchants and paramilitary groups that terrorize the countryside.  Villagers have fled to the capital looking for safety, work and anonymity. The poorest ones are waste-pickers, while whoever can buy merchandise sells fruit and snacks at street corners. Illicit commerce and other forms of informal work are the only sources of a tiny income for the poor. Yet, there are several organized attempts to displace the street vendors, who fill the sidewalks during peak hours, from the centre.

Street fruit vendors in Bogotá

Street fruit vendors in Bogotá

The idea of a “civic culture” (Cultura Ciudadana) was the slogan by Antanas Mokus, a professor of physics and mathematics, who surprised everybody when he was elected mayor twice, in 1995 and in 2001. Together with Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2001) and “Lucho” (2004-2007) they are still known as the legendary triumvirate who changed the city’s face: They improved public space and the natural environment, organized the first means of mass transportation, introduced the «day without car», bicycle lanes, Sundays for bicycles (ciclovia) and in particular managed to convince the middle classes that they own the city. Still today, that period is considered Bogotá’s golden age.

People enjoying the ciclovía on a Sunday morning

People enjoying the ciclovía on a Sunday morning

Since Colombia has been the only reliable ally of the US in Latina America over a long period of time, it has also been a privileged destination for foreign investment. Responsible for attracting and managing inward investment is the public-private-partnership “Invest in Bogotá”, also responsible for the international positioning of the city, using culture as the main vehicle for its message. Theatre lovers from all over the world have already booked their tickets for the Iberoamerican Theatre Festival that will open its doors again in a few weeks, in March 2014,  in Athens of South America, in Bogotá.


* This article was originally published in Greek for the daily newspaper Kathimerini on 18th January, 2014. You can read the original Greek article here.

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