Official street signs label the frontage road south of Interstate 94 as Concordia Avenue, but St. Paul City Council Member Russel Balenger says that many longtime residents of the area have never stopped using a former name: Rondo Avenue.
As one of his last acts before leaving the council, Balenger is leading a charge to restore the name of the road that once served as the main artery of the storied Rondo neighborhood — the social, cultural and commercial heart of St. Paul's Black community for much of the 20th century.
When the freeway was constructed in the 1950s and '60s, it destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses in Rondo, many of them owned by African Americans. Balenger's family was one of the first forced to move out in 1957, when he was 8 years old.
Much of Rondo Avenue disappeared, and part of what remained was renamed Concordia Avenue in 1964 in honor of the nearby college — a decision made by the City Council without public discussion, according to Balenger.
"It was one thing to take your home and your community and destroy it," he said. "But then when they erased the name, that was just adding insult to injury."
On Wednesday, Balenger plans to introduce a resolution to restore the Rondo name to a stretch of Concordia Avenue between Griggs and Mackubin streets, and a stretch of St. Anthony Avenue from Western Avenue to Rice Street. The public will have a chance to testify at the meeting before the council takes a final vote, said Dan Dodge, Balenger's aide.
Rev. Brian Friedrich, president of Concordia University, already has sent a letter expressing support for the proposal to flip the street name from Concordia to Rondo.
Balenger, who was appointed to the council in August 2022 to fill a vacant seat, secured $23,000 in the city's 2024 budget to swap out street signs and assist property owners affected by the change.
"I look at this as a thing that will provide some healing for those, like myself, who felt like the name was taken," he said.
Nieeta Presley, whose family also was displaced by I-94, said that bringing back the Rondo name would be another way for officials to apologize for the trauma that freeway construction caused the neighborhood.
"It doesn't solve all the pain and the hurt, but it definitely is moving in the right direction," she said.
Presley added that she's also hopeful about simultaneous efforts to make amends for the injustices of the past — including the Reconnect Rondo land bridge, St. Paul's reparations commission and the city Inheritance Fund, which helps former Rondo residents and their descendants with down payments and home repairs.
"This is part of being in my DNA to do whatever I could do to make sure that the legacy, the history, of Rondo doesn't get forgotten," Presley said. "And I can tell you, we haven't had this much attention in a long time."
Marvin Anderson, a son of Rondo and longtime leader of efforts to preserve its legacy, said the simple act of restoring the avenue's name will have "a profound impact," likening it to when Minneapolis renamed Lake Calhoun as Bde Maka Ska.
"To me, restoration means we're returning something to the way it should have been, the way it was — like you restore your land after a disaster," Anderson said. "You go in, and then once that's restored, you're able to now have a foundation upon which many things can be built."
Anderson said that he and others have asked city officials to restore Rondo Avenue's name for years. Commemorative "Old Rondo Avenue" signs, posted atop the official street signs, have marked the street's old footprint since 2016.
Frank White, another former Rondo resident, said a renamed Rondo Avenue should match the historic footprint as much as possible — which is why he's pushed for the renaming of two separate street segments.
Because I-94 was built to curve toward downtown, it bisected the old Rondo Avenue. Part of the former street overlays what is now Concordia Avenue. But moving further east, starting around Western Avenue, historic Rondo Avenue matches up with what's currently St. Anthony Avenue.
"For me, I don't really think the renaming is necessary in the scheme of things," White said, adding that changing addresses will be an inconvenience to residents and businesses. "But if they do choose to do this, let's do it historically accurately."
In talking to residents and businesses in the area, Balenger said he's heard mostly excitement about the proposal. Asked whether he thinks the changes may cause confusion, he noted that the commemorative signs have denoted the two segments for years now. Only one building on St. Anthony will have to change its address, he said, and GPS will guide those unfamiliar with St. Paul.
There's been a lot of turnover in the neighborhood over the years, said Balenger, who for decades has lived four blocks off the street he's hoping to rename.
"I love to hear my neighbors — my new neighbors — take pride in saying they live in the Rondo community," he said. "The point's been made that whatever happened, it's still Rondo."