Podcasts shine light on Rondo

Rondo – St. Paul’s vibrant Black community – was torn in two from 1956-1968. Wrecking balls demolished roughly 700 homes and 300 businesses. With the center of the community cleared, excavators rumbled around the clock as Interstate 94 was completed to accommodate travel between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. 
The other option for the freeway – along abandoned railroad tracks near Pierce Butler Route– was scratched in favor of displacing residents of Rondo. 
Today a youth-driven podcast, “Voices of Rondo,” collaborates with the nonprofit ReConnect Rondo to illuminate Rondo’s rich history as well as its losses. 
“History is not just about the past; it is a dialogue that informs our future,” said ReConnect Rondo Executive Director Keith Baker. “Our commitment to youth voices reaffirms that they are the stewards of our shared history.”
Born more than a half-century after Rondo was sliced in two, a group of high school students are determined to present the plight of Rondo via podcasts and other mediums. At the beginning, the team had little or no knowledge of Rondo’s plight nor the systemic racism in American transportation policy. Now they do.
Baker intentionally chose candidates who live near a freeway, as do current Rondo residents. High school principals were asked to choose students who expressed an interest in civics, politics and communication. The student internship builds skills including communication, video design, editing and community engagement.
In October 2023, the students produced the first “Voices of Rondo” podcast while interning at High School for Recording Arts (HRSA), a 25-year-old charter school nestled in the heart of old Rondo. Students are mentored in state-of-the-art careers as they work toward a high school diploma. 
“We’re documenting history,” HRSA student said Stone Williams. “We want to find justice for the Rondo community, which was wronged. We want to involve the community. It’s a way to give back.” 
“The podcast is a catalyst and a vessel for us to share the story of Rondo and to uncover the historical racism within the U.S.,” said Erica Lee, a Brooklyn Center High School student.
Prior to the destruction that began in 1956, Rondo prospered. Over the years, the community of upper-class, middle-class and working-class neighbors enjoyed a choice of three local newspapers, as well as theater and music venues. Luminaries of Rondo include Earl Wilkins, newspaper editor and elegant editorialist, who wrote of the neighborhood as “alive with feeling;” his son, Roger, a Pulitzer Prize winner; Roy Wilkins, at the helm of the NAACP for 22 years; photographer Gordon Parks; Lou Bellamy, founder of the Penumbra Theatre Company; and playwright August Wilson.
Eventually the thriving community began to crumble, intentionally. Scare tactics were used to clear Rondo’s center: lowering a wrecking ball balanced over an occupied home; a 24-notice to vacate; property devalued due to cracks in the foundation.
The grandparents of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter fled the violence and hatred of the Deep South. They chose Rondo as their community. And they lost it. 
“My grandfather, Melvin Carter Sr., owned over a half-dozen properties in our historic Rondo neighborhood, which was destroyed to build the freeway just below us,” said Mayor Carter. “That freeway cost my family everything.”
Moises Puente, one of the “Voices of Rondo” students and a student at Brooklyn Center High School, conducted a survey.
“We took a look at the generational wealth lost from 1956 to 2018,” he said. “Had those businesses and homes continued to exist in Rondo, they would been passed on to the next generation at the sum of $157 million.
“Some home owners were given a payout of 5% for their home. The community was given crumbs. We want to inspire people to know that history.”
“I want people to be inspired by the fact that now Rondo is a pioneer in the field of restorative justice,” said Erica. “We’ve researched many communities that have dealt with the same issue: New Orleans, Houston, Detroit and more.” 
Is the proposed Land Bridge that will span the two halves of Rondo a token?
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” said Moises. “I would say that the land bridge is something that was advocated for by the community to use for the revitalization of Rondo. Justice includes the land bridge that will reconnect the two sides of Rondo.”
APOLOGY in 2015
Apologies arrived seven decades after the highway was completed.
“The Minnesota Highway Department built an interstate through the heart of the Rondo Community,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation Charles Zelle in 2015. “We would never, we could never, build that kind of atrocity today.”
That same day, former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said, “Today we acknowledge the sins of our past. 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 St. Paul. 
“Today as Mayor of Saint Paul, I apologize, on behalf of the city to all who call Rondo home, for the acts and decisions that destroyed this once vibrant community.”
Harm was done. However, the students are intent on recovering memories of the community so that the harm is never repeated.
“Why do people suffer the effects of a highway?” Erica said. “I really want people, especially Black and Brown people in urban communities, to wonder why and to question the injustices around them. Why is there a highway in my community? A factory? Why is my children’s school underfunded? Why is there lead and asbestos in my home? I really want people to start questioning these things and to take action.”
“We know that other communities have been impacted by highways,” said Stone. “It’s an ongoing problem. It’s important to push that message out and possibly inspire other kids to do this if they live in a city that has been wronged. We’re a new generation. It’s on our shoulders.” 


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