Barranquilla, a city on the move

Franklin W Knight writes about the coastal Caribbean city of Barranquilla, Colombia, for Jamaica’s Observer.

LIKE people cities experience life passages. They are born, they grow up and they die. Unlike characters like Jesus and Lazarus, cities sometimes have a new life after death. Industrious far-sighted inhabitants with vision can rebuild decaying or dead cities. It happens all the time and now it is happening in Barranquilla in Colombia.

Situated on the northern Caribbean coast, Barranquilla is like an insecure stepchild whose life is spent with an indelible consciousness of unrequited love, parental neglect and constrained opportunities. It’s better known siblings are the historic Cartagena to the west and to the east the enormously charming Santa Marta where the famous liberator Simon Bolivar spent his final days. Both are approximately equidistant from Barranquilla, the fourth largest Colombian city. A river port rather than an ocean port, Barranquilla lies about 25 kilometres on a wide bend near the mouth of the Magdalena River.

There are some distinguished river ports. Think of London on the Thames, New York on the Hudson or Paris straddling the Seine. Others quickly come to mind. Florence has a special relationship with the Arno. New Orleans is 100 miles up the Mississippi River. Manaus, 1000 miles up the Amazon, has had its ups and downs. Baltimore, on the Patapsco River estuary of the Chesapeake Bay, was one of the most energetic and resourceful US cities throughout the 19th century. For most of the 20th century, however, Baltimore lost its pre-eminence. Philadelphia, even farther inland on the Delaware River was the birthplace of a revolution whose influence was felt around the globe. Not to mention famous river ports in England, on the European continent, or in Africa, India, China and Australia.

Barranquilla, which means little canyon in Spanish, has a history that somewhat resembles that of Baltimore. Its beginnings are inauspicious. It had no distinguished founder or even an agreed founding date. Unlike Cartagena and Santa Marta it had no concentrations of indigenous inhabitants to attract the voracious interests of the Spanish for cheap labourers. It had no accessible deposits of gold or silver. What the historian Luis González once wrote of the small Mexican town, San José de Gracia could easily apply to Barranquilla: its significance lies in its very insignificance.

Founded by Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1525, Santa Marta has the distinction of being the second oldest Spanish settlement on the South American mainland after Darien. Cartagena has a spacious seaport and indigenous people have resided in the neighbourhood for nearly 7000 years. In June 1533 the Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Heredia, began the city naming it after the home town of many of his sailors. Barranquilla had no such luck. In the beginning explorers took fresh water from the Magdalena River and passed on. The Spanish court historian González Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés mentioned that the explorer Pedro de Heredia, on his way to Cartagena, mentioned the Magdalena River as a possible inland route. He was right.

The Magdalena, like the Mississippi, became an important route inland to the highly productive area around Mompos where the locals possessed gold and the sort of good clay ideal for making bricks and domestic utensils. During the 18th century Mompos became an important commercial centre and slave-trading river port. It traded with Jamaica and Cuba. As the river gradually silted its lower areas, Barranquilla slowly came to life. Then, as the river became erratic upstream and steam began to revolutionise transportation, Barranquilla came into its own.

The introduction of the railroad and the steamship stimulated a transportation and marketing revolution that brought thousands of people to Barranquilla. It became the main entry to Bogotá and the productive Cauca River valley. To accommodate commerce and people, Barranquilla built a pier second in length only to Southampton. The long age of prosperity and growth in Barranquilla lasted until the 1940s. Then like in a chapter from the novels of local son, Gabriel García Márquez, it all disappeared. As Colombia descended into prolonged violence and chaos, Barranquilla, like many other cities fell into neglect and decay.

Things changed in the late 1950s when some local folk began the slow reinvention of the city with an ambitiously integrated plan. Barranquilla would become a modern, economically self-sustaining city. Focusing on education, they opened some excellent secondary schools. Several new universities started up along with a branch of the National University. The Universidad del Norte, a progressive private university, opened in 1966. With a spacious, excellent physical plant this university already has more than 11,000 students in an array of academic fields spanning the sciences, humanities and engineering. It is currently building a modern, entirely “green” state-of-the-art five-storey museum and multi-purpose centre of the sort that the University of the West Indies rejected a few years ago.

Barranquilla is quickly earning a well-deserved reputation as the medical centre of Colombia. It has several modern, fully equipped full-service hospitals, dozens of pharmacies, health clinics and a growing army of health practitioners. The educational system places great emphasis on training the technical staff required for its rapidly expanding health care operations. The new comfortable Ernesto Cortissoz airport, named after the Colombian aviation pioneer, connects the city to the rest of the country as well as to the wider world. Once they had flights between Montego Bay and Jamaica.

The new leaders of Barranquilla are not simple bean-counting materialists narrowly pursuing dreams of ostentatious wealth. They retain and support cultural traditions such as the local carnival (among the longest continuously held in the Americas) and La Cueva, the sort of public café-restaurant frequented by artists, writers and politicians reminiscent of El Botín and the Café Gijón in Madrid. Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the spirit of the city than the new Museo del Caribe, a brilliantly designed, enormously sophisticated museum devoted to the environmental and demographic history as well as the art and culture of the Caribbean coast. It is the sort of museum no self-respecting, independent Caribbean country should be without.

For the original report go to http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Barranquilla–a-city-on-the-move_9450034#ixzz1VLOzw9Gz

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