Born and raised in Rondo, Joyce Dodson Williams remembers the freeway coming in and moving her home when she was a child, and the Metro Green Line coming in 10 years ago. She recalls the neighborhood not being told the truth about either of those projects. To her, the land bridge project to reconnect the neighborhood doesn't sound much different.
"I moved into King's Crossing 11 years ago and people from the city came knocking on the door finding out I was from Rondo. They were telling us about the land bridge and they were making all these plans about the land bridge. Ten years ago," Williams said. "I hadn't heard anything since until about this year."
Williams — one of several Rondo neighborhood elders and younger descendants who remember the freeway project that pushed hundreds of Black families out of their neighborhood 60 years ago — spoke at an event at Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul last week to raise questions about the Rondo Land Bridge project.
ReConnect Rondo, the nonprofit behind the project to create a land bridge over Interstate 94 that would reconnect the historic Black neighborhood with new homes and businesses, said the project is in the early stage. No concrete plans have been made, and the $6 million in funding won last month was needed for further community engagement, project planning and to hire a community engagement coordinator, ReConnect Rondo Executive Director Keith Baker said.
Two months ago, a group of Rondo residents and descendants formed Preserve Rondo, a group of concerned community members seeking more transparency and engagement related to the project.
Tish Jones and PaviElle French, two leaders behind the community effort, said for them, the land bridge was previously just an idea.
"This year, there were much more high-level talks, fundraising millions of dollars to move the project forward. All that happened within a matter of months versus years and years of hearing an idea," Jones said.
They were asked to help with engaging young people in Rondo about the idea, but before lending her services, Jones said she wanted to understand how the project had previously engaged Black people who live in the area. "They couldn't come up with any documentation that showcased or reflected that they had asked Black people whether or not they wanted this land bridge," Jones said.
ReConnect Rondo said it took hundreds of surveys, did 125 in-depth interviews with the Urban Land Institute and held numerous community meetings before the pandemic. Most recently, 9,000 postcards were sent to households and businesses in the Summit University/Frogtown neighborhoods inviting them to public input meetings, which were held throughout June.
Preserve Rondo organized a team of 10 people who visited 300 homes in three days. About 70% of the people they spoke with were unaware of the project, Jones said. ReConnect Rondo disputes this and questioned the group's reporting methods and who they spoke with.
Both groups say they have attempted to hold meetings and private conversations with each other but have been ignored.
Plans for direct door-knocking to inform people of these Zoom input sessions were hindered by the pandemic, Baker said.
"Part of the whole point of going to the Legislature for resources was to be able to put in place and hire, and invite community folks and community ideas in terms of engagement," Baker said. "There's so many more folks to reach and ... we've never suggested that we've reached everyone."
Preserve Rondo, which has created a petition demanding transparency with about 350 signatures, said it has concerns about gentrification, rising property taxes and the potential health impact of the land bridge's construction.
"The community deserves to have a vested interest and a stake in the things that are happening to their community. They have a right to know," French said.
ReConnect Rondo shares these concerns, and will get answers to them, Baker said. The group is exploring the idea of homes being owned by a community land trust, which would help fight gentrification and keep housing more affordable. This is similarly being explored with jobs.
"We have $1.2 million to engage the community, to hire folks within the neighborhoods to work with community-based organizations to help us in this effort of the planning phase of something like this," Baker said.
Nothing about the project has been set in stone, said Marvin Anderson, a Rondo descendant and the ReConnect Rondo board chairman.
"All of the people that came to this meeting, I want to see them on a committee. I want to see them join something and I wanted to bring that fever, that energy, and I want them to force our committees to come up with the right decision. Now they just can't drop out. I really want them to come," Anderson said.
Jones said she is open to exploring other options that would build generational wealth for Rondo, including giving the project dollars back to everyone in Rondo whose homes or businesses were taken from them, or the building of an asthma clinic for kids at Maxfield Elementary School who may have developed asthma from living near the freeway, or for a new community center.
The ReConnect Rondo board invited the public to join the advisory committee and get involved.