Roots of Rondo honors a neighborhood, looks to the future

America’s network of interstate highways is considered to be one of the most impressive infrastructure achievements of all time, a lasting symbol of the country’s postwar prosperity. But the interstate system carries a dark legacy — one still felt in the Black communities of major cities — of the neighborhoods destroyed to make way for the highway.

Sugar Hill in Los Angeles became home to many wealthy Black entertainers in the 1940s; then the Santa Monica Highway was built through it. In Nashville, I-40 slashed a thriving commercial district that was home to many Black-owned businesses, and divided the city’s historically Black colleges from one another. The Treme area of New Orleans was cut in half by Interstate 10, after residents of the French Quarter lobbied successfully to keep it out of their neighborhood.

It happened in Detroit, too, and in Boston, Indianapolis, Charlotte, and other cities across the country. Areas where Black families and business owners had established thriving communities were chosen to be leveled. 335,000 homes were razed and their residents displaced in the first decade of interstate construction, according to authors F. Kaid Benfield, Donald D. Chen, and Matthew Raimi in the book Once There Were Greenfields.

Elsewhere, Black neighborhoods were cut off from city centers by the highway. At the same time, the new interstate system accelerated white flight to the suburbs and contributed to decreased investment in urban cores.

St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood was destroyed by the construction of I-94, which connects the city to Minneapolis. The community continues to celebrate Rondo’s history through annual events like Rondo Days and the Selby Avenue Jazz Festival. And in 2016, a project called Roots of Rondo brought together local Black artists to create work highlighting the neighborhood’s past, present, and future.

Roots of Rondo grew out of Irrigate, a three-year initiative of Springboard for the Arts, which used artist organizers and partnerships between artists and businesses to maintain commercial activity during the construction of a new light rail transit line. Like I-94, the Green Line now connects Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Dianne E’Laine called back to the highway’s construction with her project for Irrigate, an original song and accompanying dance called the “Light Rail Shuffle.” In the song, which she taught to zumba dancers and shared at events, she sings, “Hope it’s not a repeat of Rondo this time / Make sure you fit in so you won’t be left behind.”

Flash Mob Zumba from Nick Clausen on Vimeo.

As the light rail was built and then began its operations, St. Paul’s Noel Nix was working with community organizations in nearby neighborhoods. Their goal, he says, was to ensure that the new transit line would stimulate economic development to benefit the community, while building on the assets that were already there.

Nix works as an aide to the Ramsey County Commissioner and is vice president of the board at Springboard for the Arts. Seeing how Irrigate had highlighted artists as community assets — including artists of color, including those connected to Rondo — he suggested a new Springboard initiative to bring Rondo artists together for creative placemaking.

The organization launched what would become “Roots of Rondo: Black Artists Rising” as a partnership with the Aurora-St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation. The artist organizer for the project was Brittany Lynch, who leads art and community development work as founder of the social enterprise Visions Merging.

Roots of Rondo trained and elevated artists as community leaders, inviting Black artists who identified with Rondo to partner with local businesses and organizations for positive community impact. The projects were designed to contribute to an authentic narrative about Rondo — highlighting more than 600 families who lost their homes when the highway was built, but also the people who live in the Rondo area today.

Where Irrigate had mobilized artists to help support businesses through the upheaval of light rail construction and development, Roots of Rondo was intended to spotlight and preserve the neighborhood’s institutions, including local schools, libraries, and community centers.

The organizers of the initiative led three training workshops, attended by 43 artists affiliated with the Rondo community. An additional 15 Black artists who had participated in Irrigate training were also eligible to apply for project funding. Through a competitive grantmaking process, 21 projects by a total of 30 artists were selected for funding, receiving grants of $1,000 to $3,000. Funding for the project was provided by the Knight Foundation through the Knight Arts Challenge, the F.R. Bigelow Foundation, and the Saint Paul Foundation. The artists created and shared their projects in the summer of 2016.

The training workshops included presentations and discussions on Rondo’s history and the way it was destroyed, led by artist organizer Brittany Lynch. These workshops, along with two study halls that grantees could attend, were also a chance for artists to be in community with one another.

“None of us realized how much meaning there would be in literally just calling these artists together,” says Jun-Li Wang, Artist Community Organizer at Springboard. “People came to the workshops and said, ‘I had no idea there were Black artists who were from Rondo, or who had an affinity with Rondo. I didn’t know you all existed.’”

The organizers ended up making the workshops more flexible so that artists had time to share stories, break bread, and simply spend time together. That relationship building was also meaningful because the group of artists spanned a wide age range, says Peter Haakon Thompson, Springboard’s Community Development Coordinator.

Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton at her inauguration. Photo by Gayle Anderson.

For example, photojournalist Gayle Anderson, known in Rondo as “Flashman,” created an exhibition of photos of community members from his own 40-year archive. For the “Cuts for the Community” project, hip-hop/spoken word artist Troy King, who performs as King Fuvi, partnered with the Grooming House Barber Shop to provide free haircuts for schoolchildren. AfreakCON, led by the artist Sol Ras, was a celebration of being “Black and nerdy,” with panels, screenings, and other activities around comics, sci-fi, fantasy, and more.

For “Between the Spaces: Rondo,” artists Sherine Onukwuwe and Mary Mabry incorporated archival footage, video and photo elements, and historical accounts into a theatrical performance about the community’s past. They presented the show at Rondo Library, which is part of the city’s public library system, and at two community organizations, Eastside Freedom Library and Network for the Development of Children of African Descent.

Onukwuwe and Mabry drew from sources including Voices of Rondo, an oral history collection by Kate Cavett, and met with community elders to hear their stories. They combined those accounts with their own personal Rondo connections.

For example, one of the stories in Voices of Rondo is told by Nathaniel Adbul “Nick” Khaliq, whose children went to high school with Sherine Onukwuwe. He lived with his grandparents on Rondo Avenue, in what would become the last house standing when the highway came through. Nick’s grandfather, Reverend George Davis, held Sunday services in the house, which doubled as Union Gospel Mission. Davis and his wife, who was blind, stayed in their home until police came in and removed them forcibly.

Stories like that, Onukwuwe says, emphasize the trauma of neighbors separated from one another, longtime relationships disrupted, and families forced to scatter to other neighborhoods or to leave the Twin Cities entirely.

Onukwuwe, who also does commercial filmmaking, says that Roots of Rondo’s accessible grantmaking process gave her the opportunity to work on something creative.

“What I’m hoping for the future is the ability to cultivate an audience that is conscious and doesn’t want just entertainment — that wants to be informed and explore the truth about the existence of Black people in this country,” she says.

Artist Ta Coumba Aiken participates in “Voices of Rondo,” by Sherine Onukwuwe and Mary Mabry. Photo by Asata Wright.

For poet, performer, and curator Hawona Sullivan Janzen, the Rondo community carries not only the history of the highway’s intrusion, but also fresher memories and grief. Her connection to the area includes time spent there with her young son, who passed away.

Janzen experienced the community’s grief, too, when she and her fellow artist, Clarence White, brought their “Poets in the Park” project to the Rondo Days Festival in July 2016. Ten days earlier, Philando Castile had been killed when a police officer shot him during a traffic stop in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights. Rondo Days fell on what would have been his birthday, and his family passed around birthday cake at the festival.

Janzen saw local residents grappling with Castile’s death as they visited the Poets in the Park booth. Passersby were invited to talk with or write a few words for Janzen and White, who then typed on-the-spot poems.

She remembers two teenage girls who visited the booth, one of whom wrote down, “I wish not to worry.” The girl talked about, Janzen says, “her fear that something might happen to a friend, that they might be out someplace and it would turn out to be the wrong place.”

The other girl wrote, “I am a living hashtag,” to which Janzen added, in her poem, “But I am also something more.”

“For me, because my connection to Rondo was also related to my own personal loss, I think that day was transformational for me as an artist,” Janzen says, “but also as a community member, and as a person of color who had a connection to that neighborhood.”

Poets in the Park was one of several Roots of Rondo projects focusing on or inviting contributions from young people — underscoring that these creative placemaking efforts are about preserving the community’s future, not just its history.

Looking to the future means making sure that new transit and development projects don’t perpetuate the mistakes of the past. Highways came through cities in the 1950s and ’60s in the name of “urban renewal.” Today’s urban renewal trends carry new threats for cities’ longtime residents and businesses, and for communities of color. Sherine Onukwuwe points out, for example, that local residents had to advocate for stops to be added to the new light rail line to serve low-income neighborhoods in and around historic Rondo.

Cities are also developing new projects specifically around the highways that once destroyed neighborhoods. St. Paul is one of several cities nationwide considering or already moving forward with “capping” highways, opening up new land and stitching together areas that the interstate tore apart. Other cities are working to create new points of access to neighborhoods that were cut off from their surroundings by the highway.

Such proposals come at a time when the damage caused by interstate construction has been acknowledged at a high level. Anthony Foxx, who served as transportation secretary under President Obama, spoke publicly in 2016 of the ways that the highway system leveled and disenfranchised low-income, primarily Black neighborhoods. In 2015, St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman officially apologized to the people of Rondo for the city’s destruction of their home.

Now, cities are challenged to move forward in ways that don’t exclude or exploit communities of color. The relationships among artists, organizations, and community members that come out of initiatives like Roots of Rondo are an important piece of positive, inclusive development, says Noel Nix. Such partnerships “ensure that the future of the community is a reflection of the shared hopes and dreams of the many, as opposed to the few,” Nix says.

“The construction of a highway, or the construction of light rail, represents choices about what we value as a community,” Nix continues. “How we build those things is important. Even more important is how we come together to build around those things.”

Rondo artists will continue to share their work with the public — and prompt conversation about the future of the region’s development — at the Twin Cities arts festival Northern Spark this summer. This year, the event will be held at key stops along the light rail Green Line, one of which is Rondo.

The Aurora-St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation and Rondo Avenue Inc., which hosts Rondo Days, have also worked to convene community members around future Rondo projects. Rondo Avenue Inc. has led efforts to establish a Rondo commemorative plaza; the plaza broke ground in October 2016, funded in part by the same grantmakers that supported Roots of Rondo.

You can visit the Roots of Rondo website to see the full list of projects, and get the Irrigate toolkit to organize artist-led creative placemaking in your community!

Above: Hawona Sullivan Janzen and Clarence White as “Poets in the Park” at Rondo Days. Photo by Bruce Silcox.