Marvin Roger Anderson, left, in prayer during a Reconnect Rondo event. Photo courtesy of Reconnect Rondo.
Marvin Roger Anderson sat on a concrete ledge, talking about his childhood over the roaring noise of cars speeding nearby. He was in the Rondo Commemorative Plaza, a modest square of grass and gravel named after the historically Black neighborhood in St. Paul where Anderson grew up.
Anderson, 82, conceived of the plaza in 2016. It features a poster display detailing life in 20th century Rondo and stone bricks with names of former residents.
Interstate 94 runs just a few steps away, an ever-present reminder that the highway’s construction in the late 1950s ran through Rondo, splitting the community in two.
Memorializing the neighborhood has become Anderson’s life work. From founding an annual summer festival in 1983 that brings together former residents, to a newer effort to build a land bridge over I-94 — connecting Rondo’s two halves — Anderson sees his projects as a way to help remedy the past.
“Why are we any different than any other group of people that have had a wrong, and they want to right the wrong?” Anderson said. “What’s different about us? Why shouldn’t we right the wrongs?”
After a career in law and community activism, Anderson’s advocacy is culminating in the land bridge project, a five-block lid on I-94, with affordable housing and a Black cultural and business district layered on top. After the Legislature approved $6.2 million last year to plan the bridge, Anderson and the organization Reconnect Rondo are poised to turn decades of remembrance into a physical form of redress.
In the first half of the 20th century, Rondo was a thriving community, home to roughly 80% of St. Paul’s Black population. The government had redlined the neighborhood, identifying its residents as high risk for banks to give mortgage loans.
Families struggled to move elsewhere as a result, and well-established Black businesses, religious groups and community centers steadily populated Rondo’s neighborhood, roughly between University Avenue to the north, Selby Avenue to the south, Rice Street to the east, and Lexington Avenue to the west.
Documents at the Rondo Community Library show that when St. Paul’s government identified possible routes for I-94, there were alternatives to building directly through Rondo. City officials at the time identified Rondo as “the slums” and intentionally under-assessed property values, Anderson said. This let the city force residents to sell their homes at cheap prices and clear a path for the highway.
In total, I-94’s construction displaced almost 600 families and 300 businesses in Rondo.
Chris Wells, a professor of environmental studies at Macalester College, led students in an assessment of the highway’s historical impact on Rondo’s land.
Aside from disrupting the neighborhood’s social and economic networks, students found that the highway had also increased air, noise and water pollution in the area.
The studies “showed what you would expect, that building a giant highway through the middle of a residential neighborhood is disruptive,” Wells said.
Today, some locals say Rondo’s two sides have faded into their surrounding neighborhoods, losing the distinct identity that marked past decades.
Anderson rejects this claim, as, to him, the old Rondo is still alive.
While Anderson drove alongside I-94 on a Saturday in May, he pointed out landmarks from his childhood. He gestured from his silver sedan to the spots where his family’s house and his aunt’s house once stood before they were destroyed during the highway’s construction.
He parked outside Taste of Rondo Bar & Grill, a bustling soul food restaurant that looks out on the highway. As Anderson sipped a Heineken at the bar and awaited an order of fried catfish, he recalled when he left Rondo for Morehouse College.
His studies at Morehouse — a historically Black college — propelled his work when he returned to St. Paul.
“I was taught ‘Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle.’ ” Anderson said.
Anderson plans to retire from his advocacy when the land bridge is complete. He said the bridge will “change the trajectory of this community.” Development plans thus far prioritize increasing economic opportunity, restoring social institutions and giving young people jobs and positive influences.
Some Republicans in the Legislature have tried to block funding for the land bridge in recent months. They said it’s not a transportation project, so it shouldn’t be funded with state and federal transportation money. Anderson said this is a sign of the country’s broader resistance to Black-led initiatives.
“Rondo and the whole Rondo land bridge is about America’s capacity to trust us,” Anderson said. “And they haven’t. They don’t trust us to deliver.”
Anderson said he is still optimistic that the bridge will be built. The INVEST in America Act that President Biden signed into law on Nov. 15 allocated $3 billion to “reconnect … neighborhoods that have been divided by arterial highways and other infrastructure.”
Reconnect Rondo’s bridge is eligible for up to $5.2 million of these federal dollars.
Though Anderson has spent much of his life preserving Rondo’s past, he said he wants his legacy to be the neighborhood’s future.
“Don’t talk about what Rondo was,” Anderson said, “talk about what Rondo can be.”
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