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Man who was displaced from St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood sees hope in plan to reconnect area

2 April 2022

Marvin Roger Anderson was 8 years old when he heard the question for the first time: “What are we going to do now?”

It was what his parents, grandparents, and friends kept asking in 1958 after they learned their St. Paul homes were in the path of a new interstate highway — I-94, running east and west across the city. They realized the destruction of their beloved, historically Black neighborhood was imminent.

“It could change your life if you lived in Rondo,” Anderson told University of Minnesota law students at a recent luncheon. “You could have a career if you lived in Rondo. You could grow, flower, blossom if you lived in Rondo. You could pour water in Rondo and watch something grow.”

It was the only neighborhood in St. Paul, Anderson explained, where Black people could walk around and not feel like a stranger or oddity. It was the only neighborhood with a thriving Black middle class; 80% of the city’s Black population lived in Rondo. The freeway placement caused the loss of 61% of residents and 700 homes, according to ReConnect Rondo.

That question — “What are we going to do now?” — still echoes in Anderson’s mind.

Almost 75 years later, he believes there could be an answer: The nonprofit ReConnect Rondo wants to create an “African American cultural, enterprise district” with a sweeping overhaul of the bifurcated neighborhood. Its flagship project, the Rondo Land Bridge, would create a “cap” over I-94 and re-connect the heart of the historic neighborhood. Ultimately, it hopes to re-establish Rondo as an official neighborhood.

The land bridge would span 21 acres, between Concordia Avenue (formerly Rondo Avenue) and St. Anthony Avenue, from Dale Street to Lexington Parkway. A master plan is still in the works, but the new community would likely include 350 to 1,400 housing units, 125,000 to 500,000 square feet of commercial and community spaces and 30 to 70% open space.

The idea was prompted by an apology from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and then-St.Paul Mayor Chris Coleman in 2015.

For Anderson and others, the apology provided hope that restoring his neighborhood was possible.

This month, the organization secured $1.5 million in federal funding to build a net-zero demonstration house to showcase one of the project pillars — environmental justice.

The multi-family building will feature sustainable design best practices that could include solar energy gardening, charging ports for electric cars, and net-zero heating and cooling systems and appliances.

Net-zero features might not be enough to overcome the environmental damage that traffic on I-94 has caused over the years. Studies show that people who live near freeways suffer from more asthma, cardiovascular disease and lung issues. One study showed that redlined neighborhoods are hotter than nearby communities by as much as 10 degrees.

“Everything has to build a sense of equity,” said Keith Baker, executive director of ReConnect Rondo, “so it may need to be above par, not just neutral.”

That would apply not only to the environmental perks showcased in the demo house, but to economic savings as well, he said.

The group hopes to launch a design competition to “incubate the best of the ideas and options,” and then ask community members to help evaluate them, Baker said.

Like the larger ReConnect Rondo project, the group’s strategy is to plan ahead. So far, the House and Senate have allocated $6.2 million from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package for predevelopment of the project. The final price tag should be about $458 million, according to ReConnect Rondo.

For Anderson, now 82, each step in the process quiets the echo in his head: “What are we going to do now?”

To make way for I-94, his family was forced to leave their home and the dozen two-story apartment buildings his father had built in 1948. They eventually wound up in Maplewood, on land purchased by a Black man who passed for white, Anderson said. The apartments were loaded onto flatbed trucks and moved; four are still standing on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, he said.

Anderson went on to a successful career as a lawyer and Minnesota state law librarian. In 1983, he co-founded the Rondo Days Festival, which draws about 35,000 people each summer, and he chairs the Rondo Center of Diverse Expression. These projects help heal the wounds of his family’s displacement, he said.

“Those who aren’t here to remember it will remember it through us,” he said. “We’re doing it for them in a sense.”

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for its free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.

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