The construction of Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul from 1956 to 1968 had a devastating impact on the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. But why was I-94 built directly through the heart of this once vibrant African American community?
A Thriving Neighborhood Shattered
Rondo was the cultural and economic center of St. Paul’s African American community in the early 20th century. Roughly bounded by Lexington Avenue, Rice Street, University Avenue, and Selby Avenue, it was home to black churches, businesses, social clubs, newspapers, and civil rights organizations. By the 1930s, about half of the city’s black residents lived there.
Rondo fostered a large middle class of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and other professionals. It also had a strong blue-collar working class sustained by the railroad industry. The neighborhood’s churches, schools, and social groups nurtured a rich sense of community identity and pride.
But in the late 1950s, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) chose to build Interstate 94 directly through the heart of Rondo.
The construction of I-94 destroyed over 600 family homes, displaced thousands of residents, demolished over 300 black-owned businesses, and permanently damaged the social fabric of this close-knit community.
Why Rondo Was Targeted
Many factors influenced MnDOT’s decision to build I-94 through Rondo:
Modernization and Urban Renewal
Post-WWII transportation planning favored large freeway projects to spur economic growth and “modernize” cities. I-94 was seen as improving connectivity between Minneapolis and St. Paul. There was little consideration of social costs.
Racial Bias and Discrimination
As an African American neighborhood, Rondo had little political power to oppose the freeway. White officials likely saw Rondo as an area of least resistance compared to routing I-94 through white neighborhoods.
Minimal Community Input
Residents had very little voice in the planning process. Public hearings were perfunctory and their concerns were largely ignored. They lacked the resources to mount an effective opposition.
Cheap Real Estate
Land in Rondo could be acquired inexpensively through eminent domain. Homes and businesses were undervalued due to racial discrimination in assessments.
Lasting Impacts on the Community
While Rondo was devastated by I-94, its spirit perseveres:
Annual Rondo Days celebrations honor the neighborhood’s history and culture.
The Rondo Commemorative Plaza was built where old Rondo Avenue once crossed under I-94.
New plans propose building a land bridge over I-94 to reconnect the two halves of Rondo.
Though the damage can never be fully undone, Rondo’s legacy remains an important part of St. Paul’s heritage. The community’s experience also serves as a cautionary tale on the social costs of large infrastructure projects.
- Before it was cut in half by I-94, St. Paul’s Rondo was a thriving African-American cultural center | MinnPost
- Neighborhood Resistance to I-94, 1953–1965 | MNopedia
- Overview – Rondo Neighborhood & I-94 – LibGuides at Minnesota Historical Society Library (mnhs.org)
- How I-94 ripped apart the Rondo neighborhood and one group’s plan to help restore it (fox9.com)
- Why was I-94 built right through the middle of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood? (startribune.com)