Eminent Domain and Interstates Intersect Race and Culture

St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood was a bustling and vibrant community. It was a prominent cultural hub that housed long-time Minnesota residents and newcomers from the south alike, according to Historic St. Paul. It was a neighborhood “that was in many ways independent of the white society around it,” home to 85% of the city’s black population and many thriving businesses. The Rondo neighborhood is still celebrated today in the Rondo Days Festival and Jazz Festival.

The neighborhood was a haven from the discrimination that many blacks faced in the south and white-prevalent surrounding neighborhoods, according to MNopedia. Music and theater flourished, and many African-American newspapers were published in the neighborhood to represent the interests of the inhabitants. Rondo resident Roy Wilkins led the national NAACP 50 years after St. Paul established its first chapter of the organization.

What was a tight-knit community preceding the construction of I-94 is now a ghost of its former self: a frontage road to a hotel and a thoroughfare to simply pass through the neighborhood, not to bring one to the neighborhood. The freeway displaced the entire neighborhood of 1064 families, 253 single individuals, and about 300 businesses. Some, including Reverend George Davis, were forcibly removed from their homes.

Former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said that black communities have systematically been eliminated throughout the country by the highway projects, including his own neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Businesses didn’t invest there. Grocery stores and pharmacies didn’t take the risk. I could not even get a pizza delivered to my house,” Foxx said during a presentation at the Center for American Progress last year.

The pattern of poor and black neighborhoods being displaced by the government runs deep through American history. Seneca Village in New York City was the largest community of free African-American homeowners through the city nearly 200 years ago. Eminent domain was used to move the people and make way for Central Park in 1856, according to the Central Park Conservancy. Half of African-Americans in the village owned land, which was five times the number of property ownership for all of New Yorkers.

Thousands of Manhattan residents signed petitions when the location of the park was decided to supplant Seneca Village, suggesting that the park be located at Jones Woods, the originally planned location. Photos from the New York Daily Times in 1856 show the negative bias against the village (one of the articles refers to Seneca Village as “a neat little settlement, known as Nigger Village.”) and illustrates the reluctance shown by the residents against locating Central Park in Seneca. The villagers believed that “the building of Central Park correlates to the local government wanting to destroy their community.” Despite this resistance among residents, the Central Park project went through and the community never recovered in unity. 

Foxx said that the location of highway construction projects have a clear and direct correlation to poor communities, and that this is apparent and visible on maps. “Today, if you live near a freeway, chances are very high that you’re poor.” The Rondo neighborhood today, which lies in the Summit-University neighborhood, fits this description, as a neighborhood surrounded by poverty and broken up by I-94. He listed neighborhoods and interstates in every corner of the country, including Rondo.

Former Secretary of Transportation Foxx said that the goal of transportation is to connect people to opportunities. Foxx argued that the communities impacted by transportation projects should be involved in the choices made in those projects. He said that while projects are expensive, the infrastructure was built over half a century ago and will need to be fixed or replaced entirely.

Foxx quoted Abraham Lincoln in his speech, saying: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities.” He hopes that any transportation decisions connect people to opportunity, and said, “We can’t change everything about the past, but we can certainly work as hard as we can today to repair our infrastructure to make it the connective tissues it ought to be.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman apologized in 2015 about the destruction of the Rondo neighborhood and said, “We regret the stain of racism that allowed so callous a decision as the one that led to family being dragged from their homes creating a diaspora of the African-American community in the City of Saint Paul.”

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