Reconciling with Rondo: could an I-94 ‘land bridge’ help heal a 50-year-old civic scar?

On Friday afternoon, dignitaries, neighbors and activists will break ground at the corner of Fisk Street and Concordia Avenue in St. Paul for what will become the Rondo Commemorative Plaza, a small public space that will overlook the very thing that requires Rondo to be commemorated rather than fully experienced: Interstate 94.

It was the construction of I-94, after all — actually the purchase, condemnation and demolition of hundreds of homes and businesses — that destroyed what had been the epicenter of St. Paul’s African-American population. That Rondo’s residents were black, that many were poor, that they were marginalized politically made the neighborhood the path of least resistance for the project.

As St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said at a ceremony on the same spot last summer, American freeways tended to twist and curve to avoid wealthy neighborhoods “and then straightened out into swaths of destruction through the neighborhoods of the poor, the disenfranchised and the non-white.”

The Rondo Commemorative Plaza — which will be built with a Community Development Block Grant as well as donations from several local foundations and the 3M African-American Employee Network — will try to tell that Rondo story, and it will be built on the site of the neighborhood’s last commercial building, which over the years held a store, a restaurant, a dance hall, a barber shop, a credit union, the offices of the St. Paul NAACP, a union headquarters and, in the end, Post 8854 of the African American Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Friday’s groundbreaking, however, is just part of an ongoing effort to reconcile what happened to Rondo, the biggest aspect of which isn’t the plaza; it’s a push to construct what’s being called the Rondo Land Bridge — a cap over I-94 that would recreate some of was lost half a century ago.

Making amends for ‘an atrocity’

The reconciliation efforts began last July, when Coleman issued a proclamation apologizing for what happened to Rondo, and state Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle apologized on behalf the department that built I-94. “Today we acknowledge the sins of our past, regret the stain of racism that allowed so callous a decision as the one that led to families being dragged from their homes, creating a diaspora of the African-American Community in St. Paul,” Coleman said.

Zelle said the department would “never build that kind of atrocity today” and he committed the department to “a new era when we put people ahead of concrete and community ahead of cars.”

These days, the first test of that commitment is taking place as MNDOT begins planning for a rebuild of I-94 between North Minneapolis and east of downtown St. Paul. Rather than approach communities with plans in hand, the department is reaching out before those plans are created. “People are not used to MNDOT coming to them this early and talking to them without a drawing in front of them,” Brian Isaacson told the St. Paul Planning Commission last month.

Isaacson, the project manager for what MNDOT calls “Rethinking I-94,” said there is not much the department can do to the freeway lanes themselves that is “compelling. But I think the stuff that’s over is really compelling to folks.”

Isaacson said I-94 through the cities has the highest level in the state of what engineers call “connectivity,” meaning the most places that people can cross over it. Yet the message the department continues to hear from people is that, “things still don’t work, that it’s still a divide,” he said.

One of those people is Marvin Anderson, who remembers losing his Rondo home and his father losing his business after years of fighting to keep both. He remembers being angry when he came home after his first year at Morehouse College in Atlanta and seeing the destruction. He rarely returned after that, he recalled this week: “There was nothing left, Rondo was gone, everybody was scattered, it wasn’t the same.”

But after years finishing his degree, working in New York City, attending law school in San Francisco, working for an airline, serving in the Peace Corps in Senegal and working for a company in Liberia, Anderson returned to his hometown. While practicing law in Minneapolis, he began researching the legal circumstances around the loss of his father’s loss home and business, which in turn led him along a path that ended with another degree in library sciences and jobs as a law librarian for the University of Minnesota and then for state Supreme Court.

But he never forgot Rondo. “It’s tantamount to PTSD and it never goes away,” Anderson said of the loss of an entire community. “When you are near or around the area that has been destroyed, you actually tear up, you have anger. And in order to avoid those, you stay away from it. I think that’s what happened to me.”

Anderson eventually began to try to do something about that anger. Along with longtime friend Floyd Smaller, he founded Rondo Avenue Inc. and in 1982 they founded Rondo Days, a community festival that has been held every summer since.

Today, along with others from neighborhoods that straddle I-94, Anderson is involved in the planning the rebuild of the interstate. He and Rondo Inc. have been promoting an idea dubbed the Eight Bridges of Rondo, which would use the traffic and pedestrian overpasses between Lexington Parkway and Marion Street to tell the story of the community. The state is in the midst of rebuilding many of those bridges and Anderson and others are meeting with residents from the Hmong-American and Somali-American communities to involve them and their stories.

But an even bigger plan is being called the Rondo Land Bridge — a project that would involve building a cap over the freeway to recreate some of the land that was leveled and removed in the original construction of I-94.

‘We sense momentum’

Lars Christiansen, the chair of the Department of Sociology and a member of the Urban Studies faculty at Augsburg College who lives near Rondo, helped start Better Bridges for Stronger Communities, which has been looking at improving the same eight bridges that Anderson identified. He and his students have also been examining the possibility and the effects of a land bridge at Rondo. “When we began Better Bridges, we didn’t necessarily believe a land bridge was within our grasp,” Christiansen told the planning commission. “It seemed like one of those extraordinary ideas people might be interested in but it felt out of reach.”

But as work progressed on the Rondo Commemorative Plaza, adjacent to the most-likely location for a land bridge (a half mile between North Chatsworth and Grotto streets) the two ideas came together. “We sense momentum locally, at the state level and nationally,” Christiansen said.

Rondo is one of three areas within the Twin Cities that are being considered for caps. The others are in North Minneapolis near Farview Park and in the Cedar Riverside area. Such caps are not uncommon around the country and Minnesota has already built one: over Highway 55, to reduce the impact on Minnehaha Regional Park from the highway’s expansion and the construction of the Blue Line light rail.

Christiansen said he finds it significant that the cover of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s latest budget featured a picture of a proposed freeway cap. And Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose own Charlotte neighborhood was divided by freeway construction, has made healing those scars a priority.

Said Isaacson: “I believe it is likely we will see something like that happen.”

MNDOT requested a study by the Urban Land Institute Minnesota to look at the viability of a land bridge at the three locations. That study is due Nov. 8 but a draft summary suggests that rather than choose among the three, MNDOT should consider building them all under a “Healthy Communities Initiative.” The summary suggests there is potential for commercial development and private fundraising to cover costs.

Anderson said he believes that Zelle is committed to doing things differently — and to include the community as a partner in whatever is done with I-94. He calls that one of five ingredients to do something like the land bridge. “This is a wonderful opportunity to put the city of St. Paul massively in the forefront of being an area where healing, reconciliation, economic opportunity and highway spending can all converge for a project that really, finally takes that final step,” he said.

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