Dr. Artika Tyner grew up in Rondo long after I-94 had sliced through St. Paul’s historically Black neighborhood, yet she still recalls her neighborhood holding strongly to its sense of community.
“My memories were of a vibrant Selby Avenue. I remember walking down the street, living on the same block with Tiger Jack and talking to community elders, going to Sunday school, going to the Hallie Q. Brown Center. All those pieces of a strong community and social fabric. I still remember that,” she said.
Dr. Tyner, founder of Planting People Growing Justice, a nonprofit leadership institute, recalled that her mother and grandparents lived in Rondo at a time when there was a higher rate of homeownership and more opportunities for Black social enterprises.
Now, nearly 70 years after the passing of the Federal Aid-Highway Act of 1956, communities across the country decimated by the interstate highway system are beginning to receive resources dedicated to restoration and revitalization.
Roughly one million Americans, mostly people of color, lost their homes in the decades that followed the Federal Highway Act. About 700 homes were lost in the Rondo area alone due to the construction of I-94 in the 1960s, leading to the loss of 48 percent of homeownership in the area and about $157 million in home equity value for homeowners displaced by the freeway.
Dr. Tyner also referred to the loss of businesses in the neighborhood since the construction of I-94, creating a lasting impact on the ecosystem of a once-bustling community.
“Rondo had over 400 Black-owned businesses,” she said. “Today we’re trying to restore roughly about a dozen on Selby Avenue alone. So, when we’re thinking about those pieces, clearly the freeway brought about harm.”
While Minnesota is well documented in having disparities in economic opportunity and education between White and Black residents, Tyner said that there should be more emphasis as to the roots of those disparities, and that individuals such as herself are obligated to utilize community-centric strategies to create change, using data, research and documentation,
“We have to understand from which we’ve come to be able to know where we’re headed. And so, part of that is telling our stories with historical accuracy,” Tyner said.
Restoring communities disrupted by infrastructure
That community-centric mindset and approach is what helped forge Reconnect Rondo, a nonprofit organization founded in 2017, with the aim of creating Minnesota’s first African American Cultural Enterprise District through the construction of a land bridge over I-94.
In recent years, Reconnect Rondo has made headway in their goal to bring restorative justice to Rondo’s descendants and rebuild what was lost in the construction of I-94. They received millions of dollars from state and federal funds for pre-development planning and research on the land bridge project, including $1.5 million to build a net zero-emissions mixed-use building, which would include spaces for housing, offices and nonprofits.
In 2023, Reconnect Rondo was one of just four nonprofits in the nation to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation in their Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program. The initiative awarded $185 million to 45 projects out of 500 applicants with the goal of rejoining communities “cut off from opportunity and burdened by past transportation infrastructure decisions.”
The City of St. Paul and Reconnect Rondo were co-applicants for the grant and received $2 million. The money will go toward creating an environmental impact analysis, community engagement initiatives, and neighborhood traffic analysis and modeling.
The organization estimates that the land bridge project will cost nearly $500 million. About 80 percent of that cost will be covered by bipartisan infrastructure money coming from the state, according to Keith Baker, executive director of Reconnect Rondo.
Reconnect Rondo leading restorative charge
With an 18-year career at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Baker’s professional experience has given him insight into how to finance the land bridge project. Reconnect Rondo has established a 4P funding and project development model with the inclusion of public and private funding, along with philanthropic and individual donations.
Baker stated that leveraging resources from the very institutions that led to the divide of Black communities across the country is a natural solution, getting to the heart of restorative justice. As he helps lead Reconnect Rondo to establish a clearer path to establishing the land bridge, Baker is turning to other communities across the country that are seeking to reconnect their neighborhoods
In October, Reconnect Rondo held a three-day conference in St. Paul as part of the inaugural Reconnecting Communities Summit to bring together the communities divided by the highway infrastructure system. The summit was sponsored by the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials and the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials.
Policy makers, community members, and stakeholders from 20 different cities such as Austin, Detroit, Baltimore and New Orleans gathered to share information and strategies to reunite their communities.
The idea for the summit came in 2022, shortly after Juneteenth. Baker said that with Reconnect Rondo’s goals in line with so many other communities across the country, it would be best for them to work together and advocate for a larger solution rather than operate in their silos. He said that since their organization was farther along than many in its effort to restore the community, they could share their progress and help other cities reach their goals.
“We’ve been planning for quite some time, thinking through the resources and trying to figure out how best to ready ourselves to leverage those resources. And I think other cities are trying to do the same,” he said.
According to Baker, the summit gave participants the ability to dig deeper into their thinking and consider what it means to engage the community and consider how resources might be used.
A collaborative approach
Mychael Wright believes that it’s important to bring the least knowledgeable people along in this process and create what he calls “a fiber of understanding” to have the best consensus on the project.
Having spent 58 of his 65 years living in Rondo, Wright has seen the community decline over time. However, he believes the success of the land project will be a shining example of what can be done across the country.
As the former owner of Golden Thyme, Wright opened up a space for Baker to hold informational meetings for community members about the land bridge project. He stated that Baker was looking for ways to strengthen his argument for the land bridge by speaking directly to community members about their needs.
“We have to bring others who are on the outside of the idea and educate them and understand the pushback and have the discussions with them, hopefully making them understand,” he said.
In Wright’s view, the land bridge project would go beyond the transactional nature of reparations—as part of restorative justice efforts—by creating change for generations.
“We have to make sure that we are sustainable into the distant future and make sure our grandkids understand and learn the relevancies of how to negotiate the system of things that man has created. We have to put our best foot forward,” he said.
Reconnect Rondo hosts events throughout St. Paul to educate and engage with community members on the land bridge project. On Jan. 18, the organization will hold a conversation on the topic of restorative development and its role in the land bridge project. Residents are encouraged to “join this movement” on Rondo’s website and sign up for the organization’s newsletter for more information.
Future vision for Rondo
Dr. Tyner said that given the chance, Rondo—in its reimagined form—should be rebuilt in a way that best serves its position in the greater metro area.
“For instance, the Twin Cities metro area, Rondo in particular, is uniquely poised to be an arts and cultural hub. That’s a part of our lifeline. In Rondo, there are the literary arts, the music, all these pieces, the visual arts. That could be a piece of our plan,” she said.
The Rondo Land Bridge Feasibility Study found that a restorative land bridge project would yield about 500 housing units, between 87,750 to 108,000 square feet of retail space, and could bring up to $4.2 million in annual tax revenue.
Besides its ability to generate wealth, Baker said that the land bridge project would give residents better health outcomes with more walkability and biking lanes added to the streets.
“Imagine being able to get everything that you want to within a 10- or 15-minute walk,” he said. “It’s more than a bridge. It’s more than a structure. It’s more about community viability and quality of life, while also returning to the community benefits and environmental conditions for future generations with compounding residual benefits.”