Keith Baker: What I think you know, the trial, George Floyd, all these things represent, are the inequities historically, are the treatments historically, it’s not the first event. It’s a symptom.
Emily Haugen: Welcome to Under-Told: Verbatim. We report from all over the world for PBS NewsHour. We’ve talked to experts and people making a difference in their communities. In this podcast we’re exploring one of these under-told stories to share interviews we’ve done with changemakers in the Twin Cities. I’m Emily Haugen, thee Under-Told Stories Project intern… filling in for Solveig Rennan. Every day, more than 150 thousand trips are taken through the Minneapolis-St. Paul sector of Interstate 94. Most of those travelers never knew the community that was once there… while on the south side of that interstate, 2 miles of homes line Concordia Avenue, facing the freeway as a reminder of a long-lost St. Paul community– the Rondo neighborhood. The old Rondo neighborhood, a historic Black community near the heart of the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis, was gutted decades ago to clear the way for the interstate. Minnesotans, now more than ever, are waking up to the realities of racial inequity in their communities. In neighboring St. Paul, activists with ReConnect Rondo have a new suggestion: they want to literally reconstruct the old Rondo neighborhood by building a land bridge over the interstate to bring the community back together. In this episode, I interviewed those leading the charge, and city and state officials working to right past wrongs. Marvin Anderson is the board chair of ReConnect Rondo.
Marvin Anderson: The Rondo community of St. Paul was the center of a vibrant and an extraordinarily creative community of African American people. It was the economic, social and cultural center of a place where about 89% of the African Americans in St. Paul lived. It was about a two and a half mile long neighborhood that stretched on both sides of Rondo, three blocks north and three blocks south. And within Rondo, you would find all of the homes, the large Charles’s fraternity houses, social institutions and Sunday schools and churches and religious institutions, civic institutions that served our community of about 15,000 people. So it was an enclave in that sense. In that it was it reflected the culture of the African American community. Community when I say the culture, a culture that’s lived outside, on your stairs, in your backyard, and in your neighbor’s house. So it was a wonderful place to grow up and live.
Emily Haugen: The Rondo of Anderson’s childhood simply does not exist today.
Marvin Anderson: I have landmarks. I was there’s the grocery store, there’s the mason Masonic Hall. There’s the Williams house. I can stop at McGills(?) to get something you know, to get. Then I get to that corner– There’s the sweet shop. I go in there and get an ice cream cone. Mr. Martin’s barber shop was over here. The Co Op was right there, that rec maurices record store was right there, I could walk into Maurice’s and hear the latest record that was played. I enjoyed walking so much that I could walk to two miles and not even know that I was walking! And I went all the way down. A lot of my friends stopped right at Dale street, that was about as far as they would go. But I went beyond there. I was adventurous. I went all the way down to Rice Street and made a whole new set of friends.
Emily Haugen: This community that Anderson knew so well was about to change. In the late 1940s, American infrastructure was expanding and Minnesota needed a route for its new Interstate 94. Several routes were proposed… but at the time of I-94’s construction… the Rondo neighborhood was designated a slum. And eventually, the state chose what it called the “St. Anthony Route,” splitting the Rondo neighborhood… a thriving, predominantly Black neighborhood… in half.
Marvin Anderson: None of it would have been necessary, you’ve got to emphasize, had they gone the northern route, the alternate route. Had they not relied on a specious argument that Rondo was a slum had they not hid behind. So when you approach things, and you do them for the wrong reasons, the result is what happens now.
Emily Haugen: Anderson watched the community dissolve when he returned from college, as the neighborhood prepared for I-94’s construction.
Marvin Anderson: I came back and I could see the de… I could see empty houses. You know, it looked eerie to me. And I’d go up to Dale Street and I looked down and everything looked desolate. It looked as if it was like a movie set. Everything. People were gone. The vibrancy, the feeling Christmas in the past would be the lights would be on there’d be Christmas lights strong and every house. Every window would be open. You see their Christmas tree. As I got down you see all of this is gone. And it was just the weirdest feeling. And I said to my parents, I said this is… wow, what’s going on this is… well, so and so’s moving, so and so are moving… the freeway will be coming through. They’ve already started. And they’re coming up and we don’t know when our house is going to be taken. And I said well this is… this is not home to me anymore. And I don’t think I came home.
Emily Haugen: Anderson stayed away… until he came back. He lives in Rondo today; determined to make a change.
Marvin Anderson: Somewhere someone popped up the idea: What about a landbridge you know, which connects. And that’s when we started thinking that wow, I wonder if that could be something that could work for our community… We all founded the thing called reconnect Rondo to study, to examine and to study, the idea that there could be a connector or lid or a highway lid or a freeway cap or a land bridge over I-94 as a symbolic way to, you know, put the freeway behind us.
Emily Haugen: Elected officials in the Twin Cities are looking to make amends. St. Paul city council member Jane Prince is one of them, especially after a year of ongoing protests against police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, and Daunte Wright
Jane Prince: I started doing a lot of reading about black history and about slave history, which I really, I mean, I think most Americans have no clue of how horrible the history of our country is for Black Americans. And so I came through that several years of extensive reading in determined in my own mind, and this is long before I was a council member, that there was nothing that we could do as Americans to adequately compensate African American descendants of slavery.
Emily Haugen: On January 13, the St. Paul city council passed a resolution to explore reparations for African Americans.
Jane Prince: The first thing it does is it apologizes for the way In which St. Paul since its founding, has discriminated against slaves. We were a free state in a Free Territory. But we allowed people who came to Minnesota to keep slaves. The Dred Scott case is a very important part of American history, which determined that slaves were property even in free states. So we apologized for the history of systemic racism, and institutionalized racism. That included redlining, the plowing under of the Rondo neighborhood, racial covenants, and so forth. So there were apologies in the resolution, then the resolution called on the city council to work at the state national level, to promote reparations. And then the resolution called for the City Council to call on all of our private and nonprofit and community partners, business partners, educational institutions, to ask them to examine their own histories with regard to racial injustice and discrimination and slavery. And finally, it commits the city council to creating a working group called the legislative advisory committee, to explore what reparations will be in St. Paul.
Emily Haugen: Prince believes these reparation efforts are especially timely.
Jane Prince: I think 2020 gave us two really good reasons that this effort is absolutely required today. One is… first we had COVID.…. The African American community has terrible COVID outcomes and really really bad health disparities. and When George Floyd was killed, the whole world saw our Twin Cities as the epicenter of race problems.”
Keith Baker: Well, when we talk about policy alignment, we’re talking about the kinds of first things that people are talking about inequities and trying to respond to inequities. We’re talking about safety and healthy communities, we’re talking about education, housing, affordability, okay, all these things are now upon us in such a way today that I’ve not really seen every jurisdiction talking about it.
Emily Haugen: On March 31, 2021, president Joe Biden announced a 2 trillion dollar plan to upgrade infrastructure, repair bridges and, most relevant for this project, promote racial equity in the economy. But to restore the community that Marvin Anderson once walked through, it will take a coalition of effort and funding.
Keith Baker: We’re talking about local state dollars. We’re talking about federal dollars, potentially, particularly the new Biden administration, announcement of infrastructure resources. We’re also talking about, you know, city resources, county resources, as well as the Planning Organization, Metropolitan Council resources, so at different points, it requires different, what I call colors of money to keep something going, and a willingness of the jurisdictions to participate. But also we have philanthropy, you know, and we’ve got several philanthropic foundations that have been very supportive of us.
Emily Haugen: So far… the cards are falling in ReConnect Rondo’s favor. Two bills… one for pre-development of the project and one for bond funding… are currently up for debate in the Minnesota State Legislature.
Keith Baker: So right now, we’ve just learned that our bonding dollars, or our request for what we call pre development funds, which we went to the legislature to request, and those that was $6.2 million. That was one bill, the other bill that we hope to continue to introduce as a bonding bill. So once from the general fund for the state, the other is for bonding dollars. And that’s usually how transportation is paid for is leveraging bonds and also leveraging what we call funds that are part of the state tree trunk highway funds. And I know that sounds like there’s a lot of layers to them, but it is, there are a lot of layers and complexities to it. But all those dollars are necessary for this thing. To really emerge and happen, and unless you kind of have an understanding of the different streams of resources, where you are in the planning process what you need at any given point in time, this could not happen except through a jurisdiction. And our instance it is Reconnect Rondo that’s doing.
Emily Haugen: According to the ReConnect Rondo website, the lid over I-94, designed to recreate once-lost land, would span between Chatsworth Street and Grotto Street in St. Paul. Activists hope that the space could be filled with housing, businesses and green space. This land bridge wouldn’t be the first one in the United States, or even in Minnesota, as Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson-Kelliher points out.
Margaret Anderson-Kelliher: Up in Duluth over 3535. As it goes north and turns into highway 61. It’s somewhat of a land bridge, it might be something people are somewhat familiar with, because the highway goes under a number of, you know, tunnels there that do have Parkland above them. Some of the more recent ones are more based on having development over them. Like there’s a large scale land bridge being built right now in Washington, DC, where there’s actually going to be the relocation of a highway as it’s being done. And then there was a land bridge done in St. Louis, around the arch area, the St. Louis arch. And that has reconnected two different pieces of their downtown. It’s a little more parkland like to be able to help people, you know, walk and connect over the highways that are there. So there are a number of things that really do are ready, you know, that our land bridges, and that we can use as models as we go forward.
Emily Haugen: Anderson-Kelliher also serves as the policy advisory committee chair for ReThinking I-94… an effort put together by the previous administration’s MinnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle when considering roadway rehabilitation efforts.
Margaret Anderson-Kelliher: Zelle you know, said we need to think about this project differently. We need to acknowledge what wrongs were done.
Emily Haugen: ReThinking I-94 is considering several other land bridges in addition to Rondo’s, including one that connects all of Downtown St. Paul. One way that officials like Anderson-Kelliher feel Biden’s racial equity mission could be accomplished is by building land bridges like this one– making it a natural fit for the infrastructure plan.
Keith Baker: I think what’s important to recognize is, in the 50s, part of what happened were all of these homes were destroyed in people’s lives and foundation of their social, cultural, economic fabric was taken out. So it has brought light and attention to past inequities. And it made them real today. You know, so again, this is all part of that policy alignment, that larger discussion statewide network that really, you know, what’s happening, you know, with the trial and George Floyd, but even prior to George Floyd, Castille, you know, Phillando Castille, you know, jamara Clark, I mean, this is not just about George Floyd, this is about the historical, you know, challenges. And I just see that this has brought further attention to why this project also is very, very important to pay close attention to, because it’s a way to get at some of those inequities in a very holistic way.
Emily Haugen: Our episode was hosted and edited by me, Emily Haugen, and produced by Simeon Lancaster and Solveig Rennan. You can find every Under-Told: Verbatim episode, virtual reality 360 experiences and our entire library of Under-Told news reports from around the world at undertoldstories-dot-org.
A land bridge over I-94
Minnesotans, now more than ever, are waking up to the realities of racial inequity in their communities. In St. Paul, activists with ReConnect Rondo have a new suggestion: they want to build a land bridge over Interstate 94 to rejoin the old Rondo neighborhood, which was destroyed decades ago by the construction of the freeway. In this episode, our intern Emily Haugen interviewed those leading the charge plus city and state officials working to right past wrongs.