I was delighted to hear Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz mention the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul during his inaugural address in January. While elaborating on his vision for One Minnesota, he mentioned the importance of establishing good relationships between state government and local leaders to help their communities thrive. He said, “When Mankato thrives, Moorhead thrives. When Rondo thrives, the Range thrives.”
It brought to mind a conversation we had during his campaign when we discussed how Rondo’s current partnership with state and local government agencies could be a model for other communities around the state. Over coffee at Golden Thyme on Selby, I told then-candidate Walz about the latest chapter in the story of Rondo. Everyone knows how our thriving African American oasis was torn asunder in the 1960s when the state routed Interstate 94 through the middle of the Rondo business district. Aside from our main businesses, they also bulldozed hundreds of homes.
In 2015, at the Rondo Healing Ceremony and Reconciliation event, former MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle and former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman formally apologized for the rash decision of their predecessors, and vowed such a mistake would never happen again. Nevertheless, that deep cut through our neighborhood remains an open wound and illustrates what can happen when state and community leaders do not work together.
In 2017, MnDOT began a two-year study to develop a new vision for I-94 from St. Paul to Minneapolis to fulfill the promise that through rigorous engagement, stakeholders and MnDOT partners would help define and develop an “effective plan for the corridor.” Since then, our organization, ReConnectRondo (RCR) has worked closely with the MnDOT and other government agencies and conducted a series of community forums to get public input regarding the plan.
I explained to candidate Walz that RCR’s commitment to the Rondo community is our pledge to pursue an innovative approach before the reconstruction of the interstate begins. We want to see how the proposed project relates to the cultural history of the Rondo community.
We will pose questions such as: How will the change affect our surrounding community? Have steps been made to seek out, listen to, and understand our views in order to anticipate what the reaction will be? Will efforts be made to make the process transparent and engaging? Will creative solutions be sought out and considered? Will there be a commitment to meaningful change in the relationship between us and the state? When the project is completed, will all who witness agree that a fundamental shift occurred to the benefit of all those who participated?
These questions have guided us over the last few years, which culminates in our advocacy to potentially build a land bridge or “freeway cap” over I-94 in the Rondo corridor. Such a project would unite and reconnect the Rondo neighborhood, help heal a serious social injustice and restore a portion of the community assets that were lost. With the use of innovative economic development tools, this effort could support creation of community-owned businesses, new affordable housing options and the creation of cultural resources. Like the Rondo Commemorative Plaza that opened last summer, it would be a collaboration of community, government, philanthropy and private enterprise.
As I described our story, then-candidate Walz became quite enthusiastic. He shares in our vision of a state-community partnership that could become a template for anywhere in Minnesota that is slated for governmental infrastructure and development projects.
Each community has a story to tell: Rondo. Waseca. Iron Range. Mankato. And within these the experiences of American Indians, African Americans, Irish, Hmong, Finnish, Germans, Swedish and many others. One Minnesota is made up of these stories. An abandoned mine and the people who worked there could become a tourist attraction. A dilapidated bridge with a story could become a farmer’s market. These are the community-minded projects that help revitalize an area, stimulating and improving local economic conditions and pride. Read More Here