“A Reckoning or a Renaissance?”

The work of ReConnectRondo, Inc, (RCR) is quite a profound realization of two converging forces and realities that is spawning a nationwide conversational dialogue and spanning a range of diverse public, private and nonprofit organizations from all over the world, which arguably is the most significant project to positively affect “The Triple Bottom Line” — that includes addressing: Environmental, Economic, as well as Equitable Development and Sustainability for the Rondo community and surrounding neighborhoods in the Capitol City of Saint Paul, MN.

As a reckoning, the Rondo Land Bridge (RLB) Project represents a settling of accounts of sorts that does not “skirt past” the historical injustices, but, instead, intentionally and thoughtfully redresses (remedies or sets right) the unjust incongruences and the unsettling inconveniences that are now a part of a “forward thinking narrative” that RCR champions, through the Eight Community Values of Rondo, including:
*Dignity of Work
*Importance of Education
*Importance of Religion
*Social Integration
*Hope
*Economic Independence
*Homeownership
*Respect for Self

As a renaissance, the Rondo Land Bridge (RLB) Project represents a rebirth of interests with a historical praxis that aligns our work with the realities of the past, including the restoration of 600 homes and 300 businesses that were destroyed during the unfortunate I-94 decision making.

The Tragic Historical Record

George Herrold and the Northern Route for Interstate 94, is said to be one of the most telling accounts of the careless attitude many had towards transportation policy — and according the record, Mr Herrold’s words not only proved to be profound, but wise beyond his generation for sure.

On November 1, 1945 the Pioneer Press offered their support for a new highway, one accessible to the University of Minnesota and designed to offer Minneapolis residents a way to “reach the State Capitol with more ease.” Highway department officials maintained that St. Anthony Avenue, running parallel to University and Marshall from downtown to the western city line, was the best option for the new highway.

Saint Paul’s eighty-two year old “founder of city planning” George Herrold, city planner since 1920 and regarded in local political circles to be an “unbending idealist,” voiced concerns about a placing a new highway on Saint Anthony Avenue (known as the St. Anthony Route). He believed the proposed route, if built to the scale being considered by officials, would cut the life out of the long established Prospect Park and Rondo neighborhoods. Herrold felt that it was the city’s civic duty to protect the interests of those citizens. While this was his most significant problem with the Highway Department’s planned route, it wasn’t the only one.

The Highway Department’s proposed route separated the State Capitol and surrounding government buildings from downtown effectively , a move Herrold considered to be a “serious engineering blunder.” He couldn’t believe that officials hadn’t considered the economic ramifications of “placing the hundreds of employees of the Capitol and highway department… outside of the commercial and recreational districts” of downtown.

While Herrold agreed that the freeway would carry more vehicles more quickly, he felt that the automobile shouldn’t “dominate cities.” He believed that the St. Anthony Route was destined to become nothing more than a “gigantic ditch … and an unwelcome concentrator of exhaust fumes.” Herrold also thought that the chosen freeway route, decided on with a minimal amount of impact studies and debate, showed incredible bias by the Highway Department. He considered his role to be an independent adviser for the community as well as his political superiors. Beholden to neither, he believed that the education of both by presenting the pros and cons of multiple options was key to planning policy.

(Link to full article) https://medium.com/@mnthen/city-planner-george-herrold-and-the-northern-route-for-interstate-94-e68f47217c8d

Rondo’s Context Is Important

In the 1930s, Rondo Avenue was at the heart of St. Paul’s largest African American neighborhood that was displaced in the 1960s by freeway construction.

African Americans whose families had lived in Minnesota for decades and others who were just arriving from the South made up a vibrant, vital community that was in many ways independent of the white society around it. The construction of I-94 shattered this tight-knit community, displaced thousands of African Americans into a racially segregated city and a discriminatory housing market, and erased a now-legendary neighborhood.
While the construction of I-94 radically changed the landscape of the neighborhood, the community of Rondo still exists and its persistence and growth are celebrated through events like Rondo Days and the Jazz Festival.

Well Documented and Telling

According to the Minnesota History Center, the majority of the records concern the Eastern and Western Redevelopment projects, which were conducted on more than 60 acres of land, located in neighborhoods to the immediate east and west sides of the State Capitol. Initial planning for these projects began in 1952, with property appraisal beginning in 1953. By January 1954, the St. Paul HRA had established a housing relocation service to assist those residents whose homes would be demolished by the Eastern and Western projects. By the end of 1957, all 1064 families and 253 single individuals formerly living in the redevelopment areas had been relocated.

Also documented in these records are the Mount Airy and Central Park projects, which were closely associated with the Eastern and Western projects and located in the same area, and the Upper Levee project, which involved the destruction of a residential area located along the Upper Levee of the Mississippi River. Planning and property appraisal for the latter project began in 1958.

The National Landscape & Policymaking

Perhaps that’s why policymakers in the 1940s and 1950s thought of cities as “human bodies”, bodies that had sicknesses and required cures. Bodies that got sick from the same diseases and would improve from the same medicine.

The postwar years were a time of unprecedented prosperity, when Americans were buying refrigerators and televisions and homes, and wanted to leave the crowded heart of city centers for space to put all their new belongings. The rise of the automobile helped them do this. In 1940, 60 percent of Americans owned cars. In 1960, 80 percent did. Today, 95 percent of Americans own cars.

This increase of people heading to the suburbs in their cars caused something else new: lots and lots of traffic. And to city planners, this was making communities unhealthy. By the 1950s, highways were being recommended as “the greatest single element in the cure of city ills,” according to Joseph DiMento, an Irvine professor who has studies highway construction during that era. To keep cities healthy, planners said, regions needed unclogged arteries for a working circulatory system. In short, cities needed highways to carry people out of the heart and to the rest of the body.

Luckily for city planners who wanted to keep their cities healthy, there was federal money available to anyone who wanted to put in modern highways. While the 1944 Federal Highway Act only offered to cover 50 percent of construction costs for highways, by 1956, the federal government had upped that share to 90 percent. So if you’re a city planner in the 1950s, you can put in roads from your city to the fast-growing suburbs for almost no cost at all.

Of course, there were people who couldn’t move to the suburbs. African Americans were denied home loans by the federal government in certain areas, a practice called redlining. Restrictive covenants prevented homeowners from selling to certain types of people, often including African Americans. And they were also denied jobs and other opportunities that would have allowed them to afford to buy a home in the first place.

In many cities, these restrictions left African Americans crowded into small neighborhoods. They essentially weren’t allowed to move anywhere else.

City planners had a solution for this, too. They saw the crowded African American areas as unhealthy organs that needed to be removed. To keep cities healthy, planners said, these areas needed to be cleared and redeveloped, the clogged hearts replaced with something newer and spiffier. But open-heart surgery on a city is expensive. Highway construction could be federally funded. Why not use those federal highway dollars to also tear down blight and rebuild city centers?

The urban planner Robert Moses was one of the first to propose the idea of using highways to “redeem” urban areas. In 1949, the commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, Thomas MacDonald, even tried to include the idea of highway construction as a technique for urban renewal in a national housing bill. (He was rebuffed.) But in cities across America, especially those that didn’t want to—or couldn’t—spend their own money for so-called urban renewal, the idea began to take hold. They could have their highways and they could get rid of their slums. With just one surgery, they could put in more arteries, and they could remove the city’s heart.

Now Is The Time To Come Together

In this age of divided government, we look to the 1950s as a golden age of bipartisan unity. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, often invokes the landmark passage of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act to remind the nation that Republicans and Democrats can unite under a shared sense of common purpose. Introduced by President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, the Federal Aid Highway Act, originally titled the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, won unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans alike, uniting the two parties in a shared commitment to building a national highway infrastructure. This was big government at its biggest, the single largest federal expenditure in American history before the advent of the Great Society.

Yet although Congress unified around the construction of a national highway system, the American people did not. Contemporary nostalgia for bipartisan support around the Interstate Highway Act ignores the deep fissures that it inflicted on the American city after World War II: literally, by cleaving the urban built environment into isolated parcels of race and class, and figuratively, by sparking civic wars over the freeway’s threat to specific neighborhoods and communities.  Even as the interstate highway program unified a nation around a 42,800-mile highway network, it divided the American people, as it divided their cities, fueling new social tensions that flared during the tumultuous 1960s.

RCR’s RLB Projects: A National Model For the United States

Reconciliation.  Restoration.  Restitution.

When its all been said and done, ReConnectRondo’s —- Rondo Land Bridge Project is going to model the change that is possible “when”:  Hard topics of conversation and blights of history are confronted, proper apologies and restitution in action is taken, and the parties involved or supported in past injustices seek to repair the known loss is recovered in the most dignifying and empowering way.

As we forge ahead as a board and staff representing the interests of the Rondo community — fifty years later, with anticipatory excitement, positive and upbeat attitudes, and a community resilience that has unquestionably kept “Rondo live”.

We now take this opportunity to “lead the way” and “take up the charge” into the various complexities of the 21st century marketplace, with an expectation that “Forward. Together” will keep us moving ahead without fail!  ALL ABOARD!

In Solidarity,

Walter L.Smith III (WS-3)
Executive Director, ReConnectRondo, Inc. (RCR)

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