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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–I-94 running east-west across the city. The destruction of their beloved, historically Black neighborhood, they realized, was imminent.
“It could change your life if you lived in Rondo,” Anderson told University of Minnesota law students at a luncheon this week. “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 percent of the city’s Black population lived in Rondo. The freeway placement caused the loss of 61 percent of residents and 700 homes, according to ReConnect Rondo.
“We were declared a slum,” Anderson said. “We had no idea we were a slum.”
That question–“What are we going to do now?”–still echoes in Anderson’s mind. “I’m approaching 83 and I can hear those words as clearly as when I was 8,” he said.
Almost 75 years later, Anderson believes there could be an answer: the non-profit 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 of land, 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 30–70 percent 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 pillars of the project–environmental justice.
“Everything we always envisioned about the land bridge over the freeway has to model climate change [best practices],” said Keith Baker, executive director of ReConnect Rondo. “We had to figure out a way of illustrating it.”
The group proposed a demonstration building on land owned by Xcel Energy. Currently, it’s an empty lot south of I-94 and Concordia Avenue. Construction could begin sometime next year on the building, the project’s first structure. The group quickly got Xcel on board.
“We’re intending to create multi-use housing, business, enterprise, a learning center,” Baker said. “We visualize our own office going in there.”
The multi-family building will feature sustainable design best practices that could include solar energy gardening, rooftop gardening, efficient insulation, water reuse, 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 traffic on I-94 has caused since the highway construction was completed in 1968. 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,” Baker said, “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, Baker said.
“Many demo projects can demo designs and applications, but the cost is not returned back for a longer period of time than people would hope,” Baker said.
The group will take those factors into account when they decide exactly how they want to define “net zero” and the desired criteria for the project. In the coming months, 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, which Baker says can be completed within Anderson’s lifetime, the group’s strategy is to plan ahead and “get ahead of the curve.” So far, the state legislature has allocated $6.2 million for predevelopment of the project.* The final price tag should be about $458 million, according to ReConnect Rondo, and will require coordinating with other organizations such as MnDOT’s Rethinking I-94.
For Anderson, now 82, each step in the process is the only thing that 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 2-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, Anderson 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 that draws about 35,000 people each summer, and he chairs the Rondo Center of Diverse Expression. Each of these projects helps 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.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said that the state legislature allocated $6.2 million for predevelopment of the ReConnect Rondo project.