Rondo Dreams Becoming a Reality

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By Zoë Jackson, Star Tribune. Photography by David Joles, Star Tribune. Originally posted July 5, 2021

Advocates have spent 12 years planning a way to reconnect Rondo.

While walking through his Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, Marvin Roger Anderson said he can’t help but notice what’s missing. Gone are the canopy of elm trees and the shops on every block. Restaurants, playgrounds and streetcars have been replaced with the whirring traffic of Interstate 94.

Now, funds approved by the Minnesota Legislature will allow the bisected neighborhood to begin the process of reconnecting.

The House and Senate allocated $6.2 million as part of the tax package to begin project predevelopment for the creation of a land bridge over I-94 that would reconnect the historic Black neighborhood and build a community that will include homes and businesses.

Reconnecting Rondo

“I’m incredibly overjoyed,” said Anderson, who added that the dollars will help assure that the Rondo reconnection is done correctly and with “wide and broad community engagement.”

Plans for the five-block stretch above the freeway call for hundreds of new homes, retail space and other amenities. It is expected to bring more than a thousand new jobs.

The bulk of the planning money is coming from the federal INVEST in America Act within President Biden’s infrastructure package. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.), who helped secure the funding, called the land bridge project the start of healing a “historic injustice that divided one of America’s most vibrant Black communities.”

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said in a statement that the government-sanctioned displacement of the Rondo community remains a painful reminder of injustices and economic devastation.

“Amid growing support for this transformative project, the Rondo Land Bridge represents a bold vision toward expanding the vital reconciliation, economic self-determination, and healing of our community,” Carter said.

The win is bittersweet for Anderson, 81, whose family lost their home and business when they were pushed out of their community in the 1960s.

“The bitter part of it is that we’ve lost over 1,000 homes,” Anderson said. “I would have been happy had there never had to be this effort, because Rondo would still be alive today.”

Once a bustling, middle-class neighborhood, Rondo changed when the freeway came through, destroying livelihoods for more than 300 business owners. When families were forced to leave, they were under-compensated and had few choices of other Twin Cities neighborhoods, Anderson said.

“Other communities had options that weren’t available in Rondo. Even if you got full compensation, where were you gonna go,” Anderson said. “You weren’t going to be able to go to another community and open up a business because there were restrictions against selling businesses or homes to Negroes at the time.”

Now, sons and daughters of the neighborhood such as Anderson — many of whom still live there — feel they are beginning a path toward revitalization.

Executive Director Keith Baker of ReConnect Rondo, a nonprofit that is advocating for the “cap” or “lid” over I-94, said he is ecstatic that funds will allow the project to move forward with community engagement and planning.

“I think what it illustrates is the ability for the state of Minnesota to see the opportunity, and to invest in communities and people — not seeing it as a cost, but an investment,” Baker said.

The funding will allow ReConnect Rondo to do crucial planning, predevelopment, community engagement, financial analysis and environmental work, Baker said. That process will take one to two years.

ReConnect Rondo leaders said in a statement that the master planning process will allow stakeholders to create community reinvestment trust and cooperative housing systems — safeguards to valid concerns of gentrification and displacement of Rondo’s current residents.

The preliminary cost of the project is estimated at $458 million, money the nonprofit hopes to raise through a combination of private, philanthropic, public and individual donors, Baker said.

Efforts to engage Rondo residents in-person, such as through door knocking, have been hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but should ramp up in September, Baker said.

Though he struggles to reconcile his happiness with sadness that his community was torn apart in the first place, Anderson said he believes his parents would be proud of their efforts.

“We didn’t give up on this community,” Anderson said. “They would know that we fought for this community.”

Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112

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