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Medellín's nonconformist mayor turns blight to beauty - new york times

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Medellín's Nonconformist Mayor Turns Blight to Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sporting three days' growth of beard and unruly hair nearly down to his shoulders, Sergio Fajardo looks every bit the nonconformist mathematician who spent years attaining a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.
But that was a past life for Mr. Fajardo, this city's mayor and the sonof one of its most famous architects. Now he presses forward with anunconventional political philosophy that has turned swaths ofMedellín into dust-choked construction sites.
''Our most beautiful buildings,'' said Mr. Fajardo, 51, ''must be in our poorest areas.'' With that simple idea, Mr. Fajardo hired renowned architects to design an assemblage ofluxurious libraries and other public buildings in this city's most desperate slums. Theireccentric shapes -- one resembles an immense blackened loaf of bread sliced in half --occupy areas where foot soldiers in Colombia's cocaine wars once died by the thousandseach year. But several years ago, residents here say, a tenuous peace was imposed byparamilitary drug traffickers who outfought their rivals.
Now, Medellín is no longer stymied by being described as the world's deadliest city.
This city of about two million people had 29 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006,down from 381 per 100,000 when killings peaked in 1991.
Elected in 2003 as an independent, and riding a growing economy and this decline inviolent crime, Mr. Fajardo has turned the city into a showcase for new educational andarchitectural projects.
He increased city spending on education, bringing it to 40 percent of Medellín's annualbudget of $900 million, while also raising spending on public transportation andmicrolending projects for small businesses. Five new libraries are at the center of hissocial policies, but Mr. Fajardo is also building a sprawling public science center anddozens of schools, and expanding public transportation by building cable cars up intothe slums on the city's hills. He contends the poor will develop the skills they need tocompete through these investments in education and new public spaces, reflecting afaith in architecture to help achieve this goal.
''Fajardo is making a long-term wager by carving out a foothold for the state in areas thatwere neglected for years,'' said Aldo Civico, who as director for the Center forInternational Conflict Resolution at Columbia University has done extensive fieldwork onMedellín's violence. ''You need to start a process of transformation somewhere.'' http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F70611F8345A0C768DDDAE0894DF404482 Medellín's Nonconformist Mayor Turns Blight to Beauty - New York Times Many parts of Medellín remain far from idyllic. Police officers toting assault rifles andwearing combat fatigues still patrol many parts of the city. Downtown, just steps awayfrom the elegant plaza filled with voluptuous sculptures by another native son, FernandoBotero, street children sniff glue out of plastic bags and snort cocaine. Some in Medellínwhisper that Diego Fernando Murillo, the paramilitary warlord known as Don Berna,still controls much of the city from his cell in nearby Itagüí prison. Others say drugtraffickers launder revenues into the construction boom in high-rise apartments andmalls that is accompanying the mayor's architectural reconfiguration.
And yet Mr. Fajardo's transformation of Medellín has captivated the city and,increasingly, other parts of Colombia. His approval ratings stand at more than 80percent, making him the country's most popular mayor and leading him to be widelymentioned as a potential presidential candidate after his term ends this year.
''He is carrying out a redistribution of wealth without a discourse of rage,'' said HéctorAbad Faciolince, a prominent novelist and political commentator here. ''If Medellíncannot take these risks, then what place can?'' President Álvaro Uribe hails from Antioquia Province, which encompasses Medellín. Heand Mr. Fajardo were schooled here by Benedictine priests. But Mr. Fajardo offers adeparture from the staunchly conservative policies of Mr. Uribe, the Bushadministration's closest ally in South America.
Mr. Fajardo, for instance, favors a debate over legalizing drugs, a somewhat maverickposition in a nation that is the world's largest cocaine exporter. And some personaldecisions, like choosing to live with his companion, Lucrecia Ramírez (near the home ofthe archbishop here), have drawn criticism from Roman Catholic leaders.
Ms. Ramírez is a psychiatrist who prefers the title of ''first woman'' to ''first lady'' andleads efforts to bar underweight models from Medellín's fashion shows. She alsochallenged beauty pageants through alternative contests that reward knowledge ofscience, literature and business.
Not everyone in Medellín, which despite its history in the drug trade is considered one ofColombia's most culturally conservative cities, supports the projects carried out by eitherMs. Ramírez or Mr. Fajardo. Old villas and trees are falling; critics say the newcommercialized look resembles Miami or Caracas.
Some take jabs at his taste for expensive public works that resemble pyramids ormassive abstract cubes.
''Fajardo is our pharaoh,'' said Jaime Alonso Carvajal, a member of the EnvironmentalCollective, a group that led raucous protests over the mayor's decision to build pastel-colored pyramids along the median of a major avenue at a cost of nearly $500,000. ''Heis cementing over Medellín to turn us into a dust bowl.'' Mr. Fajardo says he welcomes such protests, viewing them as part of the creation of acity in which residents can intermingle anywhere regardless of their social or economiccircumstances. ''It is an advance for our society that people feel safe enough to saywhatever they want about me in any part of this city,'' he said during an interview whilestrolling through central Medellín. And as for the shapes, he said: ''I'm still amathematician. I love geometric forms.'' The pièce de résistance of Mr. Fajardo's strategy sits on a hill in Santo Domingo Savio, asprawling slum that is home to 170,000 people. Visitors take the metro from downtownthen connect to a new cable car system that swiftly transports them up into SantoDomingo. From there, they walk through hard-edged streets until reaching the Parque http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F70611F8345A0C768DDDAE0894DF404482 Medellín's Nonconformist Mayor Turns Blight to Beauty - New York Times Domingo. From there, they walk through hard-edged streets until reaching the ParqueBiblioteca España, designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti. There, rising from cinderblockhovels, is a hulking rectangular structure that looks not unlike some medieval citadeland includes a library, auditorium, Internet rooms, day care center and an art gallery.
It strikes those who live in its shadow variously. Yasmin Henao, 30, a maid who liveswith her husband and three children in a wooden shack with a view of the library, saidshe was hesitant to go inside. ''I saw guards at the doors,'' said Ms. Henao in aninterview in her home. ''I don't know if it's a place for me.'' A short stroll away, Jaime Quizeno, a mechanic, offered another assessment as duskbegan to envelope the hillside. ''It looks like an enormous cloud when it is illuminated atnight,'' said Mr. Quizeno, 63, smiling.
''Such a beautiful thing, right here with us,'' he continued. ''Who could have imaginedthat?'' http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F70611F8345A0C768DDDAE0894DF404482

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