The subtitle of this book accurately describes its contents, for the author focuses on the role of private interests in shaping the development of Colombia’s second largest city during an era of modernization. An introductory chapter traces the early history of Medellín, which was not founded until 1675 but rapidly superseded its regional rivals, largely because of its favored location in the fertile and well-watered valley of Aburrá. Early settlers included well-to-do landowners and merchants from the older Santa Fe de Antioquia as well as recent immigrants from Spain. The author then turns to the activities of the Sociedad de Mejoras Públicas, which was established by business leaders in 1899 as a vehicle for promoting and undertaking civic improvements. Holding a negative view of politicians, the society’s founders favored a technocratically oriented city government that would advance economic growth and private interests. During its apogee, which lasted to about 1930, the society not only advised the city council but also performed functions normally carried out by public officials, such as the collection of certain taxes and the paving of streets.
Next, the author examines efforts at city planning and regulation, which were only partly successful. Here and in a subsequent chapter, he deals with projects that transformed the spatial contours of the city, such as the construction of the Parque de Bolívar (1888-92) and alteration of the course of the Medellín River (1912). The Sociedad de Mejoras Públicas played a major role in the conception and design of such projects; foreign models, such as Baron Haussmann’s Paris and the recommendations of foreign experts, also had some influence. The author concludes, however, that these projects generally benefited the owners of private property rather than the public good and left the city architecturally impoverished as a result of the prominent role played by engineers in the projects’ design and development. He notes that a university program in architecture was not established until 1946. Another chapter is devoted to the provision of low-income housing, which became necessary as a result of industrial development in the city and its environs. Starting in 1918, the national government adopted measures to encourage the construction of such housing, but the major contribution was made by industrial enterprises, such as Coltejer, and by other private entities. Elsewhere the author disputes the contention of Juan José Echavarría that urban real estate was the principal component of the estates of wealthy families in Bogotá and Medellín from 1931 and 1944, and that reliance on this secure type of property belies the stereotype of the dynamic antioqueño entrepreneur. Botero Herrera argues instead that in Medellin urban real estate was generally subordinate to commerce and that investment in urban properties could be a risky enterprise.
Botero Herrera, author of La industrialización en Antioquia: genesis y consolidación, 1900-1930 (Medellín, 1984), a history of industrialization in Antioquia, has drawn on an impressive body of printed and manuscript sources, including the records of the Medellín city council and private collections. He relies especially heavily on the memoirs of Ricardo Olano (1874-1947), a prominent businessman, urban developer, and leader of the Sociedad de Mejoras Públicas. His book is suggestive rather than exhaustive, for each of the topics covered cries out for fuller treatment. The absence of a conclusion to bring together the various strands of the author’s argument is unfortunate. Although he cites the extensive body of literature on the development of Medellín, there is little extended comparison to the history of other cities in Colombia or Latin America. Despite these flaws, this book should be of interest to students of urban history and to Colombianists in general. The latter will surely be intrigued by the author’s depiction of the ascendancy of private interests in the evolution of the city and the weakness of public authority.