Reclamation through Interpretation: One Community’s Path to Healing

How Urban Communities are Healing in the Wake of Destruction by Transportation

This article appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of NAI Legacy Magazine

The passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 launched a massive program of federally funded interstate highway construction. This program, which continued into the 1980s, resulted in over 40,000 miles of limited-access highway across the country. It also served as a tool for the destruction of communities of color, perpetuating and reinforcing policies such as urban renewal that shielded racist and harmful actions behind seemingly beneficent urban planning.

Despite the physical destruction of their neighborhoods, former residents are working to reclaim their communities in innovative ways.

One of these methods is by recasting the physical manifestation of neighborhood destruction—the freeways themselves and adjacent infrastructure—into interpreted places that showcase the communities’ culture, values, history, and enduring presence. The Rondo Commemorative Plaza, an interpretive pocket park developed by residents of Rondo—Saint Paul, Minnesota’s historic African American neighborhood—commemorates the community, which was devastated by the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1960s. With the development of this interpretive plaza, the site is transforming from a locus of trauma and loss to one of community strength and healing.

On the Corner of Rondo Avenue and Fisk Street

Following the loss of Rondo’s last commercial building at the corner of Concordia Avenue (formerly Rondo Avenue—even the name “Rondo” was erased) and Fisk Street, the site became a vacant lot. Early- to mid-20th century single-family houses extend to the east, west, and south of the corner lot, while traffic hums along I-94 immediately to the north. From here, the modest family homes across the interstate are a distant vision that appears no more connected to the present location than the barely visible high-rises of downtown Saint Paul to the east. However, prior to the construction of I-94 in the 1960s, these two neighborhoods were united along a bustling thoroughfare known as Rondo Avenue, the lifeline of Saint Paul’s vibrant African American community.

Historic photo of Credjafawn store in the Rondo neighborhood

Rondo’s Origins

Rondo began as a multiethnic settlement founded by the son of a French-Canadian fur trader and his Kootenai wife in the 1840s. In time, Jewish residents settled in the area. Unlike many other Saint Paul neighborhoods, the Jewish residents of Rondo did not close out Blacks with restrictive covenants. As a result, African Americans began settling in Rondo in the early 1900s. By the 1950s, Rondo was primarily African American, although still multiethnic, and had become known to residents as “a strong village environment [… where] People cared about you. They were concerned about your success” (Debbie Montgomery Gilbreath, Voices of Rondo, 2005). It had grown into a largely self-sufficient community filled with economic, educational, religious, and social institutions. However, although Rondo’s origins are unique, its demise was tragically common.

Rondo’s Destruction

In the late 1950s, like countless other cities across the U.S., Minnesota’s Twin Cities took advantage of federal funding for highway construction via the Federal-Aid Highway Act. As with so many communities of color, Rondo ended up in the path of interstate construction. Despite grassroots mobilization by community members, as well as opposition by at least one city planner, an alternate route through an underutilized industrial area to the north was rejected in favor of a route through the heart of Rondo.

Interstate 94 through Rondo

Hundreds of houses, churches, businesses, and even a school fell to the bulldozer, their footprints carved away in the wake of a massive trench that severed the neighborhood. The community’s linear center from which all activity radiated had become a system of layered barriers—a vast expanse of sunken concrete bordered by towering walls and populated by speeding cars. Unfair compensation for properties taken by eminent domain, as well as economic barriers such as redlining and restrictive covenants, greatly constrained the options available to the more than 600 displaced families, over 75 percent of whom were Black. Many tried to stay near the former heart of their community, settling further to the north or south, now split into two separate neighborhoods by I-94.

Rondo’s Renewal

While the interstate that tore through Rondo had caused irrevocable damage, the intangible fabric of the community persisted. Former residents were determined to rebuild community infrastructure and maintain their cohesive spirit and core values. Events such as Rondo Days, an annual community celebration held every year since 1983, and organizations such as such as Rondo Avenue, Inc. (RAI), a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Rondo’s past while embracing a diverse, community-oriented future, were established, while other area organizations, such as the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, continue going strong. Both Rondo Days and RAI were founded by “Sons of Rondo” (many who grew up in Rondo identify as “Children of Rondo”) Marvin Roger Anderson and Floyd G. Smaller, Jr. Through efforts such as these, the community has maintained a strong, vital, and visible presence.

Reclaiming Rondo

When the last remaining commercial building in the Rondo neighborhood was lost to fire in 2013, Rondo Days and RAI co-founder Marvin Anderson organized an event to commemorate the building and the neighborhood it represented. It was not long before Anderson, along with Smaller and other Children of Rondo, were moving forward with plans to transform the lot into a pocket park commemorating their community. In 2016, Saint Paul was one of four winning cities for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Every Place Counts Design Challenge, intended to “raise awareness and identify inclusive community design solutions that bridge the infrastructure divide and reconnect people to opportunity.” The program was launched by Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who himself had grown up in what was once a thriving Black community in Charlotte, North Carolina, that had been destroyed by transportation infrastructure and urban renewal. Building on momentum such as this, and following receipt of a community development block grant and funding from local foundations and businesses, planning for the commemorative plaza progressed. Project Manager Marvin Anderson enlisted artists Seitu Jones and Roger Cummings, Saint Paul design firm 4RM+ULA, and Minneapolis landscape architecture firm TEN x TEN to help make the vision reality. 106 Group helped with additional research, community engagement, and foundations development.

The lighted beacon of Rondo Commemorative Plaza

The Rondo Commemorative Plaza opened in July of 2018, adjacent to the interstate that wrought a tragedy the community is determined to overcome. The rectangular plaza features a gathering space at the center and a gently sculpted hill that supports programming. A lighted pillar at the northeast corner of the lot, visible from the interstate, proclaims “RONDO” at the top. The gathering area is flanked on the east by greenspace with plantings and memorial plaques, and to the west by a row of panels that interpret both the past and present of Rondo. This includes the rich African American legacy as well as introductions to the ethnic groups that have more recently settled in the area, including Somalis, Oromo, Karen, and Hmong—each of whom themselves have overcome painful displacements. The panels are designed to be changeable through time as new stories come to light and new causes for celebration arise. A pergola at the south end shelters the work of Seitu Jones—free-standing metal chimes set into a platform etched with the original streets of Rondo. Each chime has a mallet attached inscribed with the name of a long-time Rondo family.

The Rondo Commemorative Plaza, proudly set alongside the very infrastructure that destroyed the community’s physical fabric, is a powerful act of reclamation by the community that persists despite diaspora.

It is also not the final step in physical reclamation of the former Rondo neighborhood. In 2017 RAI and the Friendly Streets Initiative established ReConnectRondo, which is working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to pursue the development of a land bridge over I-94 in an effort to further heal what has been divided for half a century. As an interpretive panel at the plaza explains, the land bridge will “serve as a physical symbol of the belief that residents have the power to reshape their neighborhoods at the grassroots level, no matter the structural barriers and obstacles imposed upon them.”
Residents of communities torn apart by interstates have long labored to keep their communities vital in the wake of the destruction. There is growing recognition and support of these efforts at the local and national level. In 2017, Chicano Park, site of a San Diego community trifurcated by highways and reclaimed by the community through public art, protests, and celebrations, was designated a National Historic Landmark. It was through the Chicano community’s efforts that, despite destruction and the erection of immense physical and social barriers, they retained their connection to the site, establishing a park in which to grow community empowerment, in spite of the concrete infrastructure that had replaced their homes.

Through efforts such as that of the residents of Rondo and Barrio Logan (home of Chicano Park), communities are reclaiming ground through interpretation. The intangible core of resilient communities is made tangible when invasive and destructive infrastructure is reclaimed by residents to celebrate and perpetuate that which it appears to destroy.

More images of Rondo Commemorative Plaza

We are grateful to Rondo Avenue, Inc. for including us in planning for this project. Additional thanks to Nicole Pederson (photographer), Scot Nortrom, Steve Boyd-Smith, and Ashlyn Crawford.