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Activists Hope Infrastructure Funds Will Help Reconnect Historically Black Rondo Neighborhood

A sign for "Old Rondo Ave". (Jim Mone/AP)
A sign for "Old Rondo Ave". (Jim Mone/AP)

The bipartisan infrastructure deal making its way through Congress earmarks $1 billion to reconnect neighborhoods divided by the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

Activists in a St. Paul, Minnesota, neighborhood known as Rondo are hoping they’ll see some of the money. A group called ReConnect Rondo is working on a plan to cap I-94 and develop a 24-acre neighborhood on top of it.

Marvin Anderson, chair of ReConnect Rondo, grew up in the neighborhood. Before the interstate came in, Rondo was a predominantly Black community. Black residents struggled to move outside of the neighborhood, he says, because of redlining and restrictive covenants in St. Paul.

The people of Rondo came together because they couldn’t find adequate housing elsewhere, he says. Janitors, musicians and store owners all lived next door to one another.

“It was just a great mélange of people and professions from all walks of life who came together to live in this community of Rondo,” he says.

Rondo had its own food, culture and way of life, he recalls. People helped each other get by and survive on low wages.

“Whatever happened in the white world was OK. We worked there. We went to school there,” he says. “But we had our own culture to come back to. And that’s what made Rondo so special.”

Anderson was 18 years old when the bulldozers came.

Back in 1948, Anderson’s father and godfather built apartments that housed families looking for a permanent place to live. The venture was so successful people had to get on a waiting list for a spot, he says.

The two men dreamed of expanding the business and bringing Anderson in when he graduated from college. But the same year Anderson graduated high school, it was decided that the interstate would soon fracture the neighborhood.

“That dream that my father and my godfather had of continuing that business, I saw it be extinguished,” he says. “And I saw the look in their eyes when they knew that this dream could not be fulfilled.”

Some members of the community thought the highway would help the community — but promises of benefits to the project never came to fruition, he says.

Today, Rondo doesn’t exist. The 200 businesses that comprised Old Rondo closed, Anderson says. A small concentration of Black-owned businesses stand within walking distance.

“But it doesn’t feel the same,” he says.

ReConnect Rondo received some money from the state to help construct a “land bridge” that would reconnect parts of the neighborhood severed by the interstate. Anderson envisions the space as a Black cultural district with an amphitheater, cultural center and 400 homes.

“You can wrap all of this up into an innovative, 21st-century gathering spot where the ideas and the culture of the Rondo community can intermingle — where the memories of the elder mix with the imaginations of our young,” he says. “That’s our vision for the district.”

And the group has a plan for ensuring housing prices don’t soar. The houses will be owned by a community trust, he says, so residents who want to sell their homes will only get a small portion of the equity. He hopes that will eliminate speculation — buying a house with hopes of selling it for a higher price in the future — which he calls the basis of gentrification.

Anyone who can provide a document that shows they lived in Rondo and lost their home will get the first crack at the 400 homes on the land bridge, he says.

The group hopes to raise funding in various ways, but the success of this plan rests to some extent on lawmakers in Washington, D.C., passing the infrastructure bill. Anderson says he believes hundreds more “languishing” neighborhoods across the U.S. could follow this development model and spark a renaissance in once-thriving communities of color.

“There’s no doubt about it,” he says. “If the federal government did not play a part in this, it would be more than difficult for us to accomplish our goals.”

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.