Those who grew up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood remember it as a vibrant, tight-knit community — the type of place where you’d run into a dozen friendly faces on a walk around the block.
“We lost a really special thing,” Margaret Lovejoy told U.S. Sen. Tina Smith on Friday, remembering how the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1950s and 1960s razed more than 700 homes and 300 businesses in the historic Black neighborhood. “I think all of us that lived through this will always have this emotional shock.”
Lovejoy and more than a dozen other Rondo residents met with the Democratic senator at St. Paul’s Hallie Q. Brown Community Center to share their stories and advocate for a portion of the $1 billion in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package set aside to remedy racial inequities stemming from U.S. highway designs.
Community members developed a vision for a land bridge that would span five blocks over the freeway, connecting the torn-apart neighborhood and creating new space for development. The ambitious idea has gained momentum in recent years, with supporters at the local, state and federal levels.
Last summer, the nonprofit ReConnect Rondo received $6.2 million from the Legislature to fund predevelopment work and community engagement efforts. Keith Baker, the organization’s executive director, said that process will likely last two or three years. Studies have estimated the total project could cost up to $458 million.
“This vision for this land bridge, to me, transforms the story of Rondo in this neighborhood from something that used to exist 60 years ago — from a mourning of something that once upon a time existed — to a sense of hopefulness about something that could exist in the future,” said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, whose father was uprooted from his home by the highway project.
Smith said she has spoken with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, whose department is overseeing the distribution of federal funds for such projects, about the Rondo proposal. More imminently, Smith said she is seeking congressional funds from the budget bill to support some of the planning work.
“I loved the way the longtime residents of Rondo talked about the love affair they have with this neighborhood and how that keeps them going,” Smith said.