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I hailed a yellow cab on Calle 19 with 5, by BD Bacata, the 67-storey glass stalagmite Portafolio calls ‘the most modern complex in Latin America’.

Bacata hopes to transform the urine smelling streets of Bogota’s Dickensian, historic Santafe, Candaleria, and Matires barrios; generating 1,000 new jobs and creating a new business hub with 117 offices and a high-end 300 bed hotel. 

Many of the apartments and offices have been sold and the shops are starting to go in on the ground floors. Good news.

Until the visit of the Pope in 1968, Calle 19 or ‘Ciudad de Lima’ was an insignificant 8-metre-wide, one lane road, that stretched from the Carrera 5 not much farther west than the 13th. Now it’s a smoky, smelly, riotous, chaotic and carnivalesque street of contraband and tat, 10 dollar knocking shops and downmarket shopping centres, of street urchins and hard-grafting chancers.

El Tiempo once called it a ‘Persian Market’. But it’s much more fun and 19th Century than that.

As the taxi bumped along the cracked tarmac behind the belching buses, the driver pawed his Hauwei, suctioned to the wind-screen, tapping the grey ‘play’ of a Whatsapp message:

‘Companeros, come at once to Titan Plaza. We’ve got an Uber driver here. Friends, come now, we’ve got him.’

Since Uber arrived in Colombia, the Bogota yellow cab cartel has waged war; leaning on the government to legislate against the platform, and shutting down the city with road blocks. At the end of last year, taxi drivers began threatening Uber drivers, and burning their cars. Flyers circulated, offering citizens a reward for every Uber driver found and reported to the cartel. Pablo Escobar used the same tactic to pick off policemen in Medellin.

There were three more messages, but the driver didn’t listen to them. Given the distance between the 19 and Titan Plaza, he was not interested in this battle. Next time…

At the end of the taxi ride I paid the fare, got out and wished the driver a good day. Did I take note of the number plate and did I report him to the police? No. I knew what would happen and I knew on whose side the police were likely to come down.

In Colombia you’re forced to make minor moral choices every day. Mostly you accept your impotence.

When night fell, I met a friend at his fifth-storey apartment in Parkway. I looked out from his south east facing kitchen window, stopping first on the beautifully lit, Torre Colpatria on Calle 24 with 7 – once the tallest building in the city – then spotting Bacata, taller, more impressive, infinitely more modern; Portfolio was right.

When I first came to Colombia I would have celebrated Bacata as a sign of Colombia’s bright future, of a nation burning through the clouds of civil conflict. I would have liked articles on Facebook that claimed ‘Colombia is now in peace’, and ‘Bogota is the best place to do business in Latin America’.

But my taxi driver reminded me that ‘salvesequienpueda’ or every man for himself is as much a piece of advice as it is a motto – it’s ingrained, a cultural norm. You don’t accept competition lying down, mijo. You try to crush ’em, to knock them off, or run them down, or invent a law to make them go bust.

Yes things are changing; but…slowly…

Later that night, I went for a beer at the BBC Bodega three blocks away from my friend’s place. For decades most Colombians were offered beer from one brewery; Bavaria. It pumped out Aguila, Poker, Club Colombia, etc. Recently the Bogota Beer Company, or BBC, has opened up the market, and there are now signs of an (albeit small, but growing) market in craft beers – even outside of Bogota. BBC has become something of a monopoly (in ‘craft’ beer) itself, but give it time and people will bore of the brand and seek something new.

The elites, the cartels and the monopolies will try to resist, but Colombians themselves like competition; they’re consumers after all. And despite the efforts of the yellow cab thugs, Uber prospers because it offers better customer service – their drivers don’t rob you and they go where you ask them.

The hope is buildings like Bacata will inspire Colombians to break free of the constraints of a post-mercantile, pseudo-capitalist economy. Everywhere in the world, sleek, minimalist skyscrapers like Bacata are built to communicate a semiotic message. They either symbolise freedom and endeavour or Pharaonic folly…

Will Colombians see Bacata and the next generation of skyscrapers proposed for the centro historico as a sign of a changing of the guard, an end to the mafias, the carteles, the gremios, the elites? Will Bacata inspire pride, creativity, boldness and originality, or will it end up as a crumbling, Ozymandian conceit?

I fear there are too many interested parties to allow Bacata to herald an open, competitive Colombia. But I hope Bacata’s diaphanous glory at least arrests the decay of the murky Calle 19.

I’ll take an Uber next time.

Photo, Baker

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