A Black Neighborhood, Upended by a Highway, Looks to Reconnect

Communities of Color in St. Paul, and Across the Country, Are Making Efforts to Remember and Rebuild

The 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act reshaped the nation, but at the cost of displacing thousands of households. Author Ryan Reft highlights how one community in Minnesota is suturing itself back together. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

How do you remember—and reconnect—a neighborhood destroyed by highway construction over a half-century ago?

Since 1983, this has been the mission of Saint Paul, Minnesota’s annual Rondo Days festival. “[You see] everyone you grew up with and everybody you’ve ever known, your childhood and everything,” said former Rondo resident Brian White, Sr. in 2015. “You might see people you haven’t seen since you were five, six years old out here.”

It may mix historical exhibits, field day tournaments, 5K runs, picnics, dances, and religious services, but the festival is no ordinary reunion. Rather, it is an effort to memorialize a riven historically Black community, while also giving living reminder to the persistence of the Rondo diaspora.

Since the early twentieth century, Pullman porters, factory and packinghouse workers, and accountants all populated Rondo, making it “a hub, a place where military, professional, and streetwise Black people gathered, talked, and exchanged ideas,” Marvin Roger Anderson, a co-founder of Rondo Days told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1990. By the 1950s, bounded by Rice Street to the east, Lexington Parkway to the west, and University and Selby Avenues to the north and south, Rondo’s roughly 1.25 square miles  were home to about 80% of St. Paul’s Black population.

It was a place of “beautiful and gracious homes,” remembered former resident Joyce Williams in a 2016 oral history interview, with “hardwood floors, beautiful woodwork, hutches, [and] stained glass windows.”

In 2021, while testifying to the Minnesota House transportation committee, Representative Ruth Richardson called Rondo “the heartbeat of the Black community” of St. Paul.

Nonetheless, between 1956 and 1968, the state of Minnesota and the city of St. Paul razed the neighborhood in order to make way for I-94, the east-west interstate that runs from Michigan to Montana. Richardson pointed out that, far from an accident, the decision to route the highway through Rondo was intentional: Officials had dismissed an alternative, less destructive plan through an “underutilized industrial area.”

The highway construction devastated St. Paul’s Black middle class. Over 600 Black families lost their homes, alongside longstanding businesses and institutions. Rondo residents also lost the ladder to generational wealth: a 2020 study suggested that, compounded over time, the lost home equity added up to nearly $160 million.

The 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act—at the time, the single biggest federal infrastructural investment in the nation’s history—reshaped the nation in countless ways. And it came at great cost. Between 1957 and 1977, nearly 1 million Americans lost their homes to highway construction, most of them people of color. Since the early 1990s, some 6,300 additional families have been displaced by highway expansion projects.

The highway construction devastated St. Paul’s Black middle class. Over 600 Black families lost their homes, alongside longstanding businesses and institutions. Rondo residents also lost the ladder to generational wealth.

Planners knew that the interstates threatened urban communities. In 1958, the Sagamore Conference—convened by the Highway Research Board and attended by top federal, state, and municipal officials, academics, and civic leaders—issued a report clearly noting the perils of highway construction. It warned of widespread displacement, with low-income, non-white, and elderly residents facing the “greatest potential injury.” (Nevertheless, to this day, literature from the Department of Transportation that is used frequently in planning and engineering graduate programs self-servingly casts this history as a series of minor, unexpected, and unintended consequences.)

In some cities, “freeway revolts” did halt construction, but this advocacy failed to include non-white homeowners. In Memphis, the white, middle-class-led Citizens to Preserve Overton Park successfully challenged the construction of a highway corridor for I-40 in the Supreme Court. But Black activists in Nashville who organized a similar group to challenge I-40 construction through their community failed in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court denied the case a hearing. Nashville’s Black community could only stand by as the highway ripped through its businesses, homes, and institutions.

In June 2021, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg initiated new efforts at the Department of Transportation (DOT) to address this problematic legacy, dedicating $1 billion to “reconnect cities and neighborhoods racially segregated or divided by road projects.”

But money doesn’t do anything on its own. To repair the damage that the planners of the 1950s wrought on communities of color, we have to address both the physical infrastructure itself, and the stories we tell about it. That means first, acknowledging and reckoning with the interstates’ history and, second, community-based efforts to restore the physical fabric of the divided neighborhoods.

To change the cultural narrative of the highways, urban planners Sarah Jo Peterson and Steven Higashide advocate for “truth and reconciliation” carried out, in part, by existing institutions such as the Transportation Research Board and university researchers, or perhaps even a Congressional commission.  “If we have any hope of avoiding future injustices, we have to fully understand the past,” notes Higashide.

These efforts feed physical solutions like ReConnect Rondo, which received a $2 million grant from Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant Program in February 2023. ReConnect Rondo is aligned with but independent from Rondo Days: an initiative “to create Minnesota’s first African American cultural enterprise district connected by a community land bridge” that will “repair, restore, and revitalize Rondo.”

Nearly 25 years ago, St. Paul journalist Joe Soucheray wrote that the Rondo Days festival “comes in softly and touches in a healing way the fading scar of Rondo Ave.” Over the years, this soft touch has had an impact, including by efforts to make the community more visibile through signage, a tribute at the local library, and Rondo’s inclusion in a permanent exhibit at the Minnesota History Center. More recently, a small pocket park called the Rondo Commemorative Plaza opened with the intention to honor the community and welcome new members, such as Somali, Karen, Hmong, and Oromo residents. ReConnect Rondo’s dream of physically and psychologically suturing the old community through a land bridge serves as an extension of this decades-long project.

The eventual Rondo land bridge will be the physical culmination of the efforts catalyzed by Rondo Days. But it is only possible today thanks to the labor of locals, former residents, and activists to make the community’s narrative known. Now it’s up to the rest of us to build it.


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