WRITTEN BY LOVISA LINDSTRÖM
A simple question repeated many times opens up a well of anecdotes. These stories are laden with diverse narratives from personal, lived experiences, describing perceptions of an area with a strong identity and a blurred perimeter.
The identity of El Hueco does not sit within structures, but rather in that which is in between the buildings: a public space, a labyrinth, in a dense cityscape. A space that constantly changes throughout the day, filled with food, people, music and vendors at midday, yet a deserted and dangerous space at night. El Hueco’s particular landscape allows for all these people, objects and activities to blend. I recorded, gathered and drew the stories and thoughts through a narrative-based research of the area to find the identity of this space.
El Hueco, meaning literally ‘the hole’ is a self-regulated commercial area in the city centre of Medellín, Colombia. Until the late 18th century it thrived with scant supervision of any control mechanisms, creating its specific idiosyncrasies evident today. Since the creation of the Guayaquil market, which was the first recalled market in this downtown area of Medellín, it has faced occasional efforts of control and demarcation, increasing in magnitude and frequency since the late 70s. The surrounding areas of El Hueco are, as with many other parts of Medellín, facing major changes in the near future. “One man’s treasure...” is intended to work as a manual for city planners, local authorities, architects and community groups, to showcase an alternative place-making strategy in an urban environment facing regeneration. Working with public space often means working in an existing cityscape where the built fabric is the landscape. When trying to understand the present context, the local caretakers of the space are the window into how the future spaces should look, both physically and metaphorically. Understanding El Hueco through the eyes of the people that are inhabiting the space constructs a narrative. The architect/artist will need to act as the designer but also the intermediary between the different stakeholders in an often sensitive process of change. When working with the local stakeholders and users of the space from the outset, the identity of the space is allowed to shape the project.
“One man’s treasure...” is a work in progress; documenting thoughts, stories, maps and photos from El Hueco as a means to define its perimeter and determine what its unique identity can be attributed to. Repeatedly asking the same question “¿Dónde está El Hueco?”, I found that people demarcated the area through their own priorities and needs; for example, the man selling avocados identifies El Hueco as the boundaries within which you can source avocados. El Hueco is filled with objects and services creating a local identity, tangible objects that create a sense of belonging and ownership; vendors sell anything from hair-clips to Catholic crosses, fresh juices to car accessories. El Hueco is a shared space and a common ground in the middle of the city, an area in constant flux. The following portraits are a snapshot in time capturing the identity of El Hueco today. The map above shows the location of each of the initial 34 individuals interviewed, marked with a triangle, around which is an outline defining their perception of the location of El Hueco.
During this research it has become clear that fixed structures generate stories among the people of El Hueco. The next stage in this project is to develop artistic pieces together with the people I have met there. Creating new objects of identity in this space could function as both a gathering of our collective memory of the place to date, and allow for new stories to be created.
Adan is a popcorn vendor by night and a guarapo vendor during daytime. Guarapo is the drink made by the brown sugar panela mixed with lemon juice, water and ice. He has sold guarapo around Plaza Botero for many years but just started the popcorn business five days ago. He pops the popcorn when you order it and there is an option of salted, sweetened or mixed popcorn. One bag cost 2000 pesos. Adan is from Santo Domingo, Medellín, the barrio where the new metro cable takes you. He likes the metro cable but still prefers to travel with his motorbike, even though it’s slower. He thinks it gives him more freedom, and the 1 hour ride home is the best hour of the day.
“El Hueco is straight down on Carabobo for 10 streets south.”
Alegra has been selling sweets, cigarettes and phone credit on the southern part of Carabobo for 12 and a half years. Today she is sitting on the corner of Carabobo and Calle 37. It costs 200 pesos/minute to call from her phone, and one candy cost 125 pesos. Alegra tells me that business used to be better, these days almost everyone own their own mobile phone so it’s hard for her to make enough money. But it is still cheap to live around here so she is surviving OK. Alegra likes El Hueco, especially the southern part where we are now; it is filled with men, cars and every vehicular accessory you could ever think of - for cars. The northern part caters for girls with things like clothes, make up, nail and hair accessories, and she finds it stressful and a bit boring.
“El Hueco starts with this corner where we are now and follows along Carabobo all the way to Plaza Botero.”
Bella is 18 years old. She is standing on a bench dancing at a daytime-party at Plaza de las Luces. Bella likes El Hueco, especially during weekends when people come from all over Medellín to stroll around, buy things and socialize. She tells me there is a concert once a month on the square and she tries to come every time. Plaza de las Luces is full with happy people, it’s free and it has a good vibe. Today she is here with her sister, but she's always guaranteed meet more people to dance and hang out with.
“El Hueco is from here where we are all the way until Plaza Botero.”
Isabel turns 70 years old in October. She has been selling clothes in the exact same location for 14 years, and in El Hueco for 30 years. Isabel likes El Hueco; she has spent most of her life here. But she doesn’t like to walk around here alone because she is afraid of being robbed. No crime has ever happened to her in the area though. She believes in God and trust that he has a guarding hand over her, and for this she feels very happy. Isabel says that there are too many clothes to choose from in El Hueco, but people keep on buying them. Isabel sells a pair of tights for 15.000 pesos.
“El Hueco is just the next street down to the left and you can walk around a whole day. Don’t go to Tenerife! Don’t cross De Grieff! That’s where El Hueco ends and danger starts.”
Javier is 67 years old but sometimes he still feels like he's 25. He has worked in el Hueco for 45 years. He is selling cigarettes, chewing gum, candy and small snacks. A bag of roasted peanuts and raisins cost 2000 pesos. Javier says that the area has changed a lot during these 45 years and two things have had a huge impact. First was the change from selling Colombian products to only selling imported goods from Asia. The other big transformation was the arrival of the Metro. Javier likes the Metro but does not use it himself, he don’t know where he would go with it. The changes are mostly for the better, but things still needs to improve. He is happy to be alive and never thought he would get this old: life in El Hueco used to be very hard.
“El Hueco is the street we are standing on now (Pichincha) and Carabobo down to San Juan.”
Malejo is 68 years old and walks around in central Medellín selling flowers. One flower costs 2000 pesos. He is more successful selling flowers in other areas then El Hueco, but he like to come here to buy a juice every now and then since it’s tasty and cheap.
“El Hueco is 3 blocks large. It starts 2 blocks north from San José and finishes one block south of Calle 49.”
Ofelia is 38 years old and is working in a shop selling lights of all kinds. This time of the year the focus is on Christmas lights, which are very popular in Medellín. It is the busiest time of the year. Everyone buys new Christmas lights every year. She doesn’t understand why people don't use the same lights every year, but 'this way is better for business.' A small Christmas tree made out of LED-lights cost 35.000 pesos. Ofelia thinks El Hueco is good for selling lights, but not for talking.
“We are in El Hueco now. And you can walk two blocks north and 1 block south and that is still El Hueco, but then it’s no more.”