Though a half-century has passed since Interstate 94 plowed through St. Paul’s historic Rondo district, there are many who still remember the trauma of that disruption and view the unsightly Dale Street bridge over the freeway as a blemish from that time.
Now Ramsey County plans to replace that narrow, utilitarian 1960s-era span with a new bridge that comes with sweeping walkways, green space, and art, poetry, even dance steps etched into the pavement.
The bridge will nod to Rondo’s history as a vibrant African-American neighborhood that has persevered despite the displacement decades ago of more than 600 black families.
“Rather than being a scar in the community, the bridge is bringing beauty,” said artist Mica Lee Anders.
The new bridge was included in the five-year transportation improvement plan passed last week by the Ramsey County Board, which vowed to develop projects that promote racial equity and improve transportation for the most vulnerable users.
“Amends can come through infrastructure, but equity is a pretty big conversation,” said Jens Werner, executive director of the Summit-University Planning Council. “Things like that you can’t simply fix with a pretty bridge, of course. Working equity into these projects will never be a checked box.”
Community members and Ramsey County officials have spent three years coming up with a design for the $14 million replacement bridge, about $6 million of which is coming from federal highway funds. The contractor will be selected later this year, with construction planned to begin in early 2020.
Three local artists, including Anders, have been hired to create art for the bridge’s sidewalks, guardrails and even the concrete base. Backers describe it as a first-of-its-kind collaboration that takes into account neighborhood needs and acknowledges the role that buildings can play in promoting equity. The county actually delayed the project nearly two years to ensure that community voices were being heard.
“We have community members, we have artists and we have engineers creating this vision. It’s really unique,” Werner said. “The art is especially important to the neighborhood. It communicates to outsiders as well as neighbors how special this place is.”
On a Wednesday night last month at the Rondo Community Library, it was standing room only as stakeholders gathered to unveil the preliminary bridge design.
“There has been a lot of engagement. It’s definitely shaped the project,” said Erin Laberee, a Ramsey County traffic engineer. “The past was brought up a lot and the damage that was done.”
“Dale Street bridge is a once-in-60-year opportunity to do it right,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, whose district includes the site. “It’s not just bridging the road. It’s bridging the community.”
A proud legacy
The bridge is a county project because Dale Street also is County Road 53, portions of which are being reconstructed this year. Summit-University residents asked Ramsey County officials for a new bridge after a walkability study in 2013 flagged it as a “rough place for pedestrians, a dangerous place and unwelcoming place,” Werner said.
It’s not difficult to see why. Walking across the bridge feels a bit like balancing on a tightrope. Sidewalks are just 5 feet wide and have a high curb. There’s no barrier or space between the walkway and driving lanes, so one stumble could leave a pedestrian splayed in the middle of the road.
The new bridge will include 16-foot-wide sidewalks on each side, streetlights and barriers separating them from traffic. “We haven’t ever built a bridge with sidewalks that wide,” Laberee said.
It also will be comfortable for drivers. There will be left-turn lanes in both directions, grassy medians and trees leading up to the bridge.
Anders, a professional artist and genealogist with a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Minnesota, bought her home in Rondo a few years ago. She jumped at the chance to join a team of artists using a bridge as their canvas. “I really like the history of the community and the efforts of long-term residents to keep that going and alive,” she said.
A poem by Hawona Sullivan Janzen will be etched into the sidewalks, and 16-foot-tall metal tree silhouettes designed by G.E. Patterson will be displayed on each end of the bridge. “I am Rondo” and “We are Rondo” will be inscribed on the bridge in multiple languages.
And a leaf pattern will be etched in the sidewalk to follow the steps of the Lindy hop. Anders and Patterson researched historic dances to come up with the design.
“This is a neat way for the youth of today to follow in the footsteps of those who came before them.” Anders said. “The Lindy hop is from the 1930s and ’40s. That was really the heyday of the Rondo community.”
Perhaps most important: The bridge will be clearly labeled so drivers on I-94 will know this isn’t just pass-through territory, but a neighborhood with a proud legacy.
“ ‘Dale Street’ will be stamped on the concrete in nice big letters to give it a sense of place,” Anders said.
Anders said she looks forward to walking across the new bridge with her 9-year-old daughter to check out books at the Rondo library or hop onto the Green Line.
“We want it to feel like a place people can rest and reflect — not a scary thing people have to cross to get someplace,” she said.