During the majority of the 1980s and 1990s, I worked at an office several blocks north of St. Paul’s former Rondo neighborhood. At least twice a day I drove past a small shed near Interstate 94, where Tiger Jack Rosenbloom sold a variety of do-it-yourself products. His “store” stood at the corner of Dale Street and St. Anthony Avenue from 1949 to 2002.
In my conversations with Tiger Jack and his neighbors, I learned a great deal about this once-bustling neighborhood, described by many as “the backbone of St. Paul’s Black community.” These hard-working folks lamented how Rondo was demolished during the late 1950s and 1960s to make way for Interstate 94. More than 500 families were displaced, along with churches, social institutions and a thriving business community. Back then, highway planners apparently gave little thought to other potential routes to link the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The 200-foot-wide, 5-mile-long trench that once was Rondo Avenue is now a dark tribute to how urban planning was done during the middle of the 20th century.
For that reason, I read Sen. Scott Newman’s letter in the July 14 Leader with great interest. Sen. Newman used a portion of the letter to state his opposition to a plan “to get the ball rolling on the Rondo land bridge … a ridiculously expensive, feel-good project that will ultimately cost more than $1 billion.”
The proposed land bridge would be a five-block-long “cap” or “lid” over the freeway. Hundreds of new housing units, more than 1,300 permanent new jobs, parkland, and retail and office space are proposed on or near the bridge. Supporters claim it would enhance the area’s livability while also making up for long-overdue social justice.
I do agree with Sen. Newman about the expense of the Rondo project. One billion dollars, or even half that amount, as has been projected by many Rondo land bridge supporters, would be an enormous cost. I also fear that after 60 years, many changes have occurred on both sides of I-94 in St. Paul, and that physically and socially reconnecting them to form a new Rondo neighborhood would require extraordinary effort beyond a hefty investment of dollars.
Despite those odds, with the right mix of energy and support, I believe it could be done.
If we are to learn anything from the Rondo tragedy, it’s that it could happen again but mustn’t. Unfortunately, it did happen in many U.S. cities. Similar displacements of Black-majority neighborhoods to build freeways occurred in Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Kansas City and Montgomery.
This is why I support Rep. Dean Urdahl’s persistent efforts to make civics education a higher priority in Minnesota’s schools. According to Sen. Urdahl, 77% of Americans between 18 and 34 can’t name even one of their U.S. senators.
If names are important, we need to remember the names of communities where injustices against marginalized groups had a profound impact in shaping Minnesota as we know it today. The list includes places in the Twin Cities as well as the Lower Sioux Agency, Mankato, Duluth, Willmar and Eveleth.
If you talk to the folks who once called Rondo home, they’ll tell you their former neighborhood is one of those places.
Tiger Jack Rosenbloom died in 2001 at age 94. Today you can see his shed at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, a short drive down the freeway from its former home. It’s good to have places like these that remind us of our past triumphs and errors.
Let’s not forget Rondo, including its prosperity and demise. It happened in St. Paul.