ST. PAUL, Minn. — Nothing seems to slow down 82-year-old Marvin Anderson, especially when it comes to talking about his neighborhood.
“My family community ties go back to 1903,” he said.
However, those ties were once nearly severed by a multi-lane strip of asphalt.
“It was a decision that destroyed lives, wiped out dreams,” Anderson said. “It interrupted the American dream.”
The Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota is now a neighborhood divided.
Decades ago, urban planners building Interstate 94 forewent a more northerly route which would have taken out fewer homes, and decided to split in half the historic African American community of Rondo.
The decision took out hundreds of homes and businesses, including the home belonging to Marvin Anderson’s grandmother and the one that belonged to his parents.
“My father and so many other mothers and fathers in Rondo were devastated by the decision,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, between the 1950s and 1970s, more than 475,000 homes were destroyed and more than one million people displaced during the construction of tens of thousands of miles of interstate highways.
The vast majority of those homes belonged to people in communities of color, mainly in Black neighborhoods.
Like in other cities around the country, the decision about where the interstates would be built came down to race and the so-called “urban renewal” efforts during that time, according to Keith Baker, executive director of ReConnect Rondo.
“It was 700 homes and 300 businesses,” Baker said. “If we really think about what the lost generational wealth is, if those homes were here today, the value would be $157 million.”
As the name implies, ReConnect Rondo is a nonprofit working to reconnect the highway-divided neighborhood.
“Can we actually create a structure that not only physically connects that community, but also emotionally connects the community?” Baker asked.
Their idea is to build a land bridge, similar to ones found in Denver, Dallas and Seattle.
As demonstrated in an animation shown by ReConnect Rondo, the land bridge would essentially create a structure that sits over the highway, allowing homes, businesses and parks to be built above it.
“We were even successful enough to get $6.2 million from the state legislature for pre-development,” Baker said.
Now, there is a potential boost for Rondo and other interstate-divided communities across the country.
To try and address what happened during the construction of the interstate system, the U.S. Department of Transportation is offering up $1 billion to begin the process of improving those affected communities and helping them reconnect.
“I think that's a tremendous starting place,” Baker said. “It allows for communities that aren't as far as Rondo, to kind of begin to think through the planning process, but it also allows for organizations like Rondo to take now our project to another phase.”
For Marvin Anderson, championing that effort is personal.
At a plaza that celebrates historic Rondo, all that is left of his parents’ and their neighbors’ homes are a few slabs of their old streets. They were placed there as a reminder of what once was, but it’s what could be that remains Anderson’s focus.
“I'm thinking about creating a generation of new young people that can think beyond the limitations of that freeway,” he said.
It is in the hopes that their community, like others, might become whole once more.