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

A detail of concept art by Rachel Burand for the Rondo land bridge.
Courtesy of Marvin Anderson, Lars Christiansen, and Melvin Giles
A detail of concept art by Rachel Burand for the Rondo land bridge.

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.”

A rendering of the proposed Rondo Commemorative Plaza.
rondoplaza.org
A rendering of the proposed Rondo Commemorative Plaza.

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.

The Eight Bridges of Rondo
Courtesy of Marvin Anderson, Lars Christiansen, and Melvin Giles
The Eight Bridges of Rondo would use the traffic and pedestrian overpasses between Lexington Parkway and Marion Street to tell the story of the community.

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.”

Joe McKinley, Marvin Anderson
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Marvin Anderson, right, meeting recently with Joe McKinley, the community engagement director of the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors.

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.

The Rondo, Concordia and Fisk street signs mark the corner overlooking I-94
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Rondo, Concordia and Fisk street signs mark the corner overlooking I-94 where the Rondo Commemorative Plaza will be built.

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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Comments (9)

I-94 and urban renewal

It wasn't just I-94 that destroyed Rondo; even before it was built, and long after, until about 1974, urban renewal was demolishing thousands of homes and apartment buildings and churches and businesses.

I-94 bridges and rondo

We lived in South Central Los Angeles, a half block from where the 10 freeway ripped through a vital, vibrant Middle Class community at what was intentionally its widest point--to wipe out La's Negro community, as it was then called. We know that the bridges that cross the 94 in Rondo are more hostile and threatening than anything in West Adams. Crossing the freeways here, on a narrow stretch of sidewalk, you feel assaulted and unsafe. Biking to the library with the kids or pushing a stroller to Target becomes an act of terror as cars whiz past and beneath you. if you veer in the slightest on a bicycle, you could easily be hit by a car or wobble and fall over onto the freeway. As those bridges are rebuilt one by one at huge expense, we cannot understand why they are not widened substantially to make the neighborhood more connected.
The land bridge as pictured will not create the connections we hope. With no shade in summer and no protection from snow and wind in winter, with no trees and little landscaping, it seems a wasted gesture. Far better to widen all the bridges, providing shade and a sense of safety as we cross back and forth between what is left of this once healthy and loving community.

Great concept albeit 40 years late

This is a great concept albeit it is 40 years late. I hate to see taxpayer money wasted but this appears to be 100X better use of taxpayer money than the Viking's stadium!!

And here's how we fund it...

Personally, I'd like to see Interstate 94 literally removed between the downtowns. Move the I-94 designation to I-694 around the cities, similar to other major interstate routings in Boston, D.C., and elsewhere. Replace 94 with an at-grade, calmed, boulevard that stitches the scar and brings the neighborhoods back together. Assuming that's not in the cards...

Toll Interstate 94. Seriously. Use dynamic congestion pricing... That is, price the existing lanes of I-94 sufficiently to maintain free-flowing traffic at all times. That may mean free for a large portion of the day, and it may mean $8 or more at rush hours. But it means that everyone who uses the I-94 freeway would be guaranteed to move fast and not get stuck in traffic. Win for motorists. And it provides funding to heal the scar of I-94 that is caused by the facility said motorists are using. Win for the neighborhoods.

What Matthew Steele said, but

What Matthew Steele said, but also to include an express train between downtowns.

More than just a bridge

I want to reinforce Sam Keats' message, on making the streets along and across the freeway more humane. The frontage roads north and south (Concordia and St. Anthony Avenues) need to be narrowed to slow traffic. The sidewalks on the bridges need to be widened and the driving lanes narrowed. The trench should be narrowed, land reclaimed, housing and amenities built, to make the empty spaces over the freeway narrower.

The land bridge is a great idea and a great start, and it needs to include making the whole neighborhood more humane, too.

no

Putting a park over a freeway is always a good idea, but the rationale is just ridiculous. When 35W was built, the same thing happened, a one-block strip of land was taken through mostly low-income neighborhoods (lower cost to build that way). It didn't destroy the neighborhoods, and people cross over it to Kingfield park all the time.
You can't blame everything on government, you have to build community on your own, too. What was so great about Rondo? Was it better than the dangerous Selby-Dale of the 1970s?
When 94 was built in Minneapolis, it did go through a wealthy area of beautiful homes, Lowry Hill, which was quite well ruined, not to mention the Bottleneck of Hennepin and Lyndale, now a spaghetti bowl. So much for saying only poor people get hurt.
The design shown for the new park is not captivating. It needs to be much better, and for everyone.

Rondo was Targeted

Baron, what is different about Rondo is that I-94 was moved south from its original planned location in order to destroy a black community. Yes, other communities in the Twin Cities Metro were destroyed as well but it is especially egregious with Rondo because was it deliberately targeted because of neighborhood's concentration of African-Americans.

Don't forget Duluth's land bridges

Duluth has had a series of amazing land bridges filled with luscious parkland, and they have been there for years. Minnesota has done this and can do it again.

I think it is important to note, as Joseph points out, that there was an alternate route for I-94 that would have avoided Rondo, but St Paul bosses pushed for it to go through Rondo. They saw it as a two birds with one stone scenario: put in a freeway and eliminate a black community that they did not want near downtown. The Minnesota History Center has a permanent exhibit up about Rondo, which I recommend.

For this particular reason, this location is especially ripe for a dramatic gesture that will also improve lives. I also think we need to remember to take all of the less-dramatic but very impactful, smaller steps: narrow car lanes, widen sidewalks, add street trees, reclaim land for productive use whenever possible. Whenever we can!