Minnesota’s racial divide: Will land bridge right Rondo’s wrongs?

In the historically Black neighbourhood of Rondo in Saint Paul, Minnesota, community leaders hope US President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan will help promote ‘mobility justice’ 60 years after a highway destroyed people’s homes.

Rondo was once home to 80 percent of the Black community in Saint Paul, Minnesota in the United States, but 60 years ago, the community and its culture were displaced when highway Interstate 94 was built [File: Jim Mone/AP]

In the United States, few places have recently faced more tortuous battles to uproot the legacy of racism and historic inequality than the state of Minnesota. Despite its ranking as one of the best places to live in the country, its racial disparities are among the worst in the nation.

Coming on the heels of a guilty verdict in the George Floyd murder case and the proposal by the administration of US President Joe Biden to invest $2.3 trillion in infrastructure, including in communities with a history of racial discrimination, a new project in the historically Black neighbourhood of Rondo in Saint Paul aspires to narrow the gap.

Rondo was once home to 80 percent of the city’s Black community. But 60 years ago, the community and its culture were displaced when Interstate 94 was built. Constructed to connect the Great Lakes with the Great Plains, the highway sliced the neighbourhood in two, demolished 700 Black-owned homes and shuttered 300 Black-owned businesses.

We’d be (driving) on the freeway as a child and my father would say, ‘We’re in my bedroom right now.' He remembers being evicted as a child, his mother’s house burned down as a training exercise by the fire department.

by Melvin Carter, Mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota

Now, a non-profit organisation called ReConnect Rondo wants the local government to come together with businesses, philanthropists and residents to build a $460m “land bridge” over the highway that could house a thriving African-American cultural enterprise district — and right that historical wrong.

The group sees potential support from Washington, DC, where Biden and US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg have included $20bn in spending on this exact type of equity project as part of their broader infrastructure drive. At the heart of the effort is Saint Paul’s first Black mayor, whose family members lost their homes when the interstate was built through Rondo.

‘Mobility justice’

Part of Biden’s infrastructure push seeks to use economic and transportation policy to redress social injustices — like in Rondo and other communities of colour that were demolished to make way for highways.

“There are countless examples of US interstate highways that were directly and purposefully routed through established minority communities, causing community upheaval, loss of homes and businesses, and deep psychological pain,” US Representative Betty McCollum, whose district includes Rondo, told Al Jazeera in a statement.

Many of those displaced from Rondo in the 1950s and 60s had few options for where they could go, as protective covenants stopped Black Americans from moving to many parts of the city in a sordid era of urban American history.

“The community vision for reconnecting the Rondo neighbourhood is a vital step toward healing the lasting wounds of systemic racism,” McCollum said.

An architectural rendering shows the Rondo land bridge, facing east towards downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota in the United States [Courtesy: ReConnect Rondo]

The project would run five city blocks in length and would require capping the air space above the interstate and engineering a platform across the no-man’s land currently surrounding the east-west thoroughfare.

The current highway would be kept intact for motor vehicles while the land bridge would reunite the two halves of the community.

Total capital costs for the land bridge would be around $460m, according to a July 2020 feasibility study developed for ReConnect Rondo.

McCollum has also thrown her weight behind the project. And at the city level, Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is seen as a major ally whose family history is deeply intertwined with that of Rondo.

‘Economic violence and psychological trauma’

Carter, 42, is a fifth-generation resident of Rondo after his forebears moved north from Texas in 1916.

His family lost six properties when the interstate was built, facing financial ruin after receiving pennies on the dollar for their estimated fair value from the city government — which used eminent domain and money from Washington to move folks out of the way under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

A young boy in Rondo watches as bulldozers level the area to make way for Interstate 94 [Courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society]

“We’d be [driving] on the freeway as a child and my father would say, ‘We’re in my bedroom right now,’” Carter told Al Jazeera. “He remembers being evicted as a child, his mother’s house burned down as a training exercise by the fire department.”

Carter said he grew up in a community that memorialised old Rondo, although the conversation has recently shifted towards a hopeful ideal for the community’s future.

About 15 percent of the population of Saint Paul is Black, and the community is still very much grappling with “the economic violence and the psychological trauma” of what happened in Rondo, Carter said.

That’s why he believes that the scale of the Rondo effort should be “commensurate with the magnitude of the harm that was caused in the first place”. That grand vision would revitalise heritage and promote intergenerational wealth.

Construction challenges

Making the land bridge a reality will require navigating a complex jurisdictional landscape, experts say, since states own and operate interstate highways but the city controls the land around it.

ReConnect Rondo has stepped in to help provide residents and stakeholders with the tools and resources they need to fight for the idea at the city, state and federal levels.

Keith Baker, the group’s executive director, told Al Jazeera that mobility justice is “critical” for people living in Rondo and throughout Minnesota, and foresees the land bridge project coming to fruition over the next decade.

“Unlike other projects where land bridges are proposed, we are not simply calling out [for] park space, but rather a holistic response to supporting community prosperity and equity in transportation outcomes,” he explained.

That holistic response includes affordable housing, job creation and business incubation, Baker said.

The plan would also create at least six hectares (15 acres) of taxable land, potentially boosting nearby property values and relying on the bottom-up approach of a community land trust. Some city planners see this as a way to avoid gentrification in Rondo.

The community vision for reconnecting the Rondo neighbourhood is a vital step toward healing the lasting wounds of systemic racism.

by Betty McCollum, US Congresswoman representing Minnesota

With residential and employment aspects, the project aims to give preference to descendants of working-class families whose property was seized during “urban renewal” in the 1960s.

When it comes to attracting economic support, many companies in the Twin Cities have said they are eager to partner with communities to help narrow the wealth gap, especially in the wake of the killings of Floyd, Philando Castile and Daunte Wright by police.

The land bridge project is a prime example of where their political and financial clout could come in handy, advocates say.

State of change

Amidst a larger movement towards redressing racist urban planning policies of the past, the Rondo project is seen as a litmus test for compensating a community for the loss of 700 homes and 300 businesses.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has launched a separate, parallel initiative called Rethinking I-94 to reimagine the main artery between the Minneapolis and Saint Paul downtowns.

A visual rendering of the streetscape in Rondo, envisioned as an African-American cultural enterprise district that rights the historic wrongs that saw Black-owned homes and businesses demolished to make way for an interstate highway in the 1950s and 1960s [Credit: ReConnect Rondo]

That project is focused largely on traffic and safety, but MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher said the agency supports ReConnect Rondo’s request for funding to plan and develop the land bridge proposal.

“While we don’t currently have funding identified for their [ReConnect Rondo] effort, the agency is committed to working with project partners on securing funding, listening to the community, and prioritising sustainable, equitable solutions,” Anderson Kelliher told Al Jazeera.

Anderson Kelliher added that the land bridge concept “represents the region’s desire to heal, and is unique in its intersection of transportation, infrastructure, racial equity, environmental justice and righting past wrongs”.

Some efforts have already been made to right those past wrongs. At a Rondo reconciliation event in 2015, the former MnDOT commissioner and former Saint Paul mayor formally apologised for the decisions of their predecessors, vowing not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The next year, a commemorative plaza was built to honour Rondo’s history.

A resident reads about the area’s history at the Rondo Commemorative Plaza in Saint Paul, Minnesota [Courtesy: ReConnect Rondo]

And every summer since 1982 — except during the coronavirus pandemic last year — the Rondo Days festival honours the spirit of the community.

But moving the project forward will require both vision and funding. It remains to be seen what combination of federal grants, state bonds, municipal investment, bank loans and crowdfunding will make it happen.

Committees in both houses of the state legislature are currently reviewing a measure to spend $6m on jump-starting the development effort. Online community meetings began last week to give residents the chance to ask experts about the land bridge project.

Baker of Reconnect Rondo said the group is making a technical, business and moral case for the land bridge in Rondo, as an innovative solution to mitigate past damage and as a way to promote a “restorative financing model” that directly benefits the community.

But Baker is honest about the challenges. “Nothing about this project is easy,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera