From its start in the 1890’s, and for almost 75 years thereafter, the men and women of a small but cohesive community came together in Saint Paul to form a unique, predominately African-American neighborhood surrounding the main thoroughfare for life, commerce and culture along Rondo Avenue. Once settled in Rondo, these men and women worked hard and long as Dining Car waiters, Pullman porters and cooks in the railroad industry; laborers in the meat processing industry; as maids, clerks, barbers and beauticians in the service industry and at other menial jobs.
Despite the social, political and economic odds stacked against them, the community that became known as Rondo provided a physical space where the residents could tell their stories, cook their food, worship their gods, sing their songs, dance their steps, play their games, drive their cars, wear their clothes and sway to a rhythm all their own. They married, owned homes, raised families and sent their children to schools and colleges. Their efforts built churches, established businesses, formed social clubs and other institutions and all contributed to the fight against the persistent racism and oppression they often encountered on their jobs and throughout the greater Saint Paul environs.
This small village of vibrancy, community concern and respect for self and others survived and thrived into the late 1960’s early 1970’s until it was destroyed by the twin demons of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 94 that razed and destroyed over 700 homes, 300 small businesses, split the community in half and, most significantly, demolished the main social, cultural and business artery of Rondo Avenue.
Despite the devastation, one characteristic that could describe the community Rondo would be its resiliency – the quality of a body or property to resume its shape or position after being bent, stretched or compressed. It was this factor that provided some relief from the freeway and enabled the community to preserve its history and legacy through the mainstays of churches, social clubs, civic activities, commercial outlets and other endeavors in nearby venues adjacent to Rondo.
By 1982, two sons of Rondo and long-time friends, Marvin Roger Anderson and Floyd Smaller, felt a need to more broadly define the spirit of Rondo that still existed in the minds of the old but only in the imaginations of the young. Under their leadership, in 1983, a community wide celebration under the banner of the” Rondo Days “was held – an event that will be celebrating its 35th year and the Grand Opening of the Rondo Commemorative Plaza next July, 2018.
A major goal of the co-founders was to trigger a renaissance of sorts and create a blank canvas which others – artists, organizations, and all sort of dreamers could draw upon without having to go back to square one. And, true to the spirit of Rondo that resides in so many, there are many indications that Rondo’s wide, deep and strong platform is powering a variety of emerging African American initiatives presaging a new Golden Age of Rondo is on the horizon.
These include efforts to promote and create a “historic district” for Rondo wherein, taking advantage of the legacy of the Rondo, there can be a number of activities and efforts to promote a broader, more equitable community outcome all while preserving the character and uniqueness of Rondo. When realized, this new Rondo becomes the starting place for a rebirth and development of a new significant community overcoming fragmentation, fostering partnerships among organizations, institutions and people of different races and ethnicities and making it all relevant to the new generation.
It is within this mix of history, culture, economics and social determination that Rondo Avenue, Inc., met with the leadership of Friendly Streets Initiative, (FSI) to determine how RAI’s mission to preserve and advance Rondo’s legacy could be joined with FSI’s work to encourage residents to engage in transportation issues involving their community. Out of these discussions, the decision was made to establish ReConnectRondo (RCR) with the mission: to build a land bridge upon the spirit of Rondo in order to maximize opportunities for business and wealth creation, jobs, economic and social development, health, wellness and environment justice, cultural and historic enrichment and affordable housing without gentrification.
RCR’s motto, that the Rondo Land Bridge (RLB) “is more than an bridge” signifies RCR intends the RLB to be a space where the community can come together to engage in activities that lead to a shared vision, collaboration and partnerships to solve the issues and problems that confront the residents of Rondo. Using the history of Rondo as a guide, the RLB will be a place where leaders from different areas can meet in trust and understanding and demonstrate they have the ability to grapple with the challenges facing their community. The RLB will be seen as the physical site that has grown out of the belief that citizens have the power to reshape their neighborhoods and the city so that it is welcoming, inclusive, connected, creative, healthy and productive for all residents whatever their race, backgrounds or places of origin and for the future they all share and that lays ahead.