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Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

Plaza memorializes destruction of Rondo community 60 years ago

Posted on 06 August 2018 by Calvin

Looking at panels of Rondo history in a memorial park at 822 Rondo Ave. (Photo by Jan Willms)

By JAN WILLMS
The community known as Rondo may have been physically destroyed in 1959 to make way for Interstate 94, but its spirit continues to thrive. This was reflected most recently as Rondo Plaza, a neighborhood memorial, was officially opened to the public.

The site, once the location of one of the last buildings to survive destruction, at 822 Rondo Ave., was formally commemorated in July. It will serve as a small community park where people can see tablets that tell the history of Rondo

The opening of Rondo Plaza is the culmination of 35 years of dedication by Marvin Anderson to keeping Rondo’s memory alive.

Photo right: The Rondo sign will light up at night to be seen from Interstate 94. (Photo by Jan Willms)

Anderson was just graduating from high school when word came that the Rondo community, an area that covered about three and a half miles, was going to be torn down for the building of a freeway.

The neighborhood, made up of African American families, ran from Rice St. to Lexington and from Marshall over to Fuller. “Over 700 homes were taken on Rondo and St. Anthony, and over 100 businesses were taken,” Anderson recalled in a recent interview. “It was very sad to lose your community like that.”

Anderson said there were protests and meetings, everybody wanting to know why Rondo was being destroyed when an alternative route could have been used. “That route was Pierce Butler Road.”

But by clearing out Rondo, the city could get urban renewal and build the interstate at the same time. “This was a fairly common practice,” Anderson explained. “Twenty-five hundred communities across the country in 993 cities were affected. And of those 2500, 1600 were communities of color.”

Anderson’s memories of Rondo are as fresh as if the destruction happened yesterday. He said the African American community was a unique area at the time. “We really didn’t have the freedom to move wherever we wanted because of restrictions,” he said. Limited to living in the Rondo area by their race, the residents flourished and built businesses, organizations, and clubs. “Gone are the days when a waiter or a porter or a street sweeper could live next door to a lawyer or a physician or a poet.”

But that was the case in Rondo. Anderson said his father was a railroad man, but his family lived next door to a doctor. “It was one of those rare opportunities. It made for a unique opportunity, and wonderful exchanges of ideas.”

When Anderson headed to college, the plan had been that he would return home after graduation and join his father and godfather in business. He said they had developed some land in the community and were going to acquire more, looking at opening a bowling alley, small hotel, and restaurant. “They wanted me to study business administration and come back, and that’s what I really wanted to do in life. But that dream they were living through me was taken away. My dad was very sad about that.”

The dreams of many went up in smoke after the homes and businesses of Rondo were eliminated.

“But Eisenhower wanted the interstate system built; he thought it would make the country safer. And how can you argue with a man who had just won the Second World War?” Anderson said. “We appealed to the power of fairness,” Anderson remembered. He said the neighborhood leaders asked those in charge how they would feel losing their homes.

“But it did not work. Twenty-five hundred communities found out it didn’t work that way,” Anderson said.

When Anderson did eventually move back to the Twin Cities in the late 1960s, he said everyone talked about remembering Rondo. He said a friend of his, Floyd Smaller, and some others tried to bring people together for a couple of picnics.

Anderson said he told them, “Let’s do something, really go big if we are going to do this.” So he and Smaller, who have now been friends for almost 65 years, put together a plan for Rondo Days in 1982. It took a year for them to get everything in place, and the first Rondo Days celebration was in 1983. They established an organization, Rondo Ave. Inc. dedicated to keeping the memory of Rondo alive.

Anderson said most of his attention in the past four years has been devoted to creating the Rondo Plaza. With a grant, the organization purchased the space and began raising funds. “Word came back we could build a museum, but that would be a three-story building running into millions of dollars, and it would take at least five people to run it. That was very difficult, so we looked at creating this little pocket park, an oasis within the city,” Anderson said. “I said maybe we could create something that had some legacy to it, but also would be a place where people could come and exchange ideas, and that’s how the plaza got started.”

He said the Plaza features the history of Rondo, as well as the present conditions and the future.

“Each year we want to use five or six panels to tell another aspect of the Rondo story,” Anderson said. “After each year, we will package the previous exhibit into a booklet form and make that available for kids at the school, so we never lose those exhibits. The teachers may be able to do lesson plans around them.” Next year’s exhibit is already planned: the women of Rondo. A Rondo children’s book series is being published in September.

The devastation that took the physical existence of Rondo away was apologized for in 2015 by then-mayor Chris Coleman. “We got the city and state to make a formal apology, which was pretty unique at the time,” Anderson said. “The Commissioner of Transportation said that in no way would they put a road through the community today like it was done. The apology did help heal some of the pain, but it didn’t wipe it out,” Anderson said. “It’s still there for a lot of people from my generation.”

But he keeps looking forward. He said the Rondo community was built on eight core values: spirituality, education, respect for oneself, respect for others, home ownership, economic independence, work with dignity, and hope. “You always have to have hope,” Anderson said, “hope that one day people will wake up and no longer discriminate….”

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