Pasaya Moua contributed to this story.
For some people in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, the Dale Street Bridge Project is more than just an improvement for transportation. To them, it’s a representation of hope and of the Rondo community as a whole.
The historically African-American neighborhood just northwest of downtown St. Paul was torn apart by the construction of I-94 in the 1960s and community leaders say it has never been the same. The reconstruction of the Dale Street Bridge in 2019 may just be one step in the healing process.
“Dale Street was the heart of the Rondo neighborhood,” said Jens Werner, executive director of the Summit-University Planning Council, which is helping community members work with Ramsey County on the bridge project, “and [residents] feel like that represents hope.”
Melvin Giles, a community activist with the Friendly Streets Initiative, said the reconstruction has taken years to put together because Ramsey County planners wanted to make sure they got plenty of community input.
“They wanted that equity,” said Giles, who lives in Rondo. “They wanted to be able to have a bridge that reflected Rondo, and to help it to be more than just for cars to go across, but to be part of a community.”
Before the interstate cut through the neighborhood, families owned businesses and homes for generations. That changed as people lost their homes and struggled to make a living, Giles said.
“Many weren’t given a choice in the matter,” he said, “and were forced to leave.”
Longtime residents, such as Laverne McCartney Knighton, who has lived in Rondo for more than 20 years, say those changes created challenges for the neighborhood. Many people tend to rent rather than own homes—according to Minnesota Compass, about 63 percent of residents rent in the Frogtown/Thomas-Dale neighborhood and 66 percent rent in the Summit-University neighborhood. McCartney Knighton said that some people don’t seem to have a sense of ownership for the community.
A 2014 walkability study identified the Dale Street Bridge as unfriendly for pedestrians. McCartney Knighton worries about streets that are unsafe for pedestrians, especially those who are handicapped, and about litter that is tossed out on the street by people who pass through and don’t seem to care.
“Right now, there’s nothing beautiful about … Dale bridge,” McCartney Knighton said. “It’s a dangerous intersection for crossing. Pedestrians can’t really cross it without fear of being hit on the crosswalk.”
When she heard about an effort started to improve the Dale Street Bridge, located at the heart of the community, she attended planning meetings, excited to voice her concerns and be actively involved in improvements. She also picks up trash in the neighborhood.
“I’ve lived in that neighborhood for over 20 years and I don’t think that there was a day that went by that when I turned off 94 to go into my neighborhood that I didn’t say, ‘Man, Dale needs to look better,’” she said. “It’s just not feasible that it can just be ignored like this.”
McCartney Knighton and Giles are among a group of community members who have been meeting with county leaders about what they want to see in a new bridge. The project is still in the planning stages, but Ramsey County has about $7.1 million in federal and local funds set aside for the project.
Werner and the Summit-University Planning Council have helped facilitate some of those discussions. She said planners and neighbors want the bridge to reflect the Rondo neighborhood and address concerns about the existing bridge, which wasn’t designed with pedestrians in mind.
“The curbs are super high, the sidewalks are really low, people can’t cross each other on the sidewalk safely, and it’s just kind of a terrifying place to be,“ Werner said.
“I just want to see a neighborhood that’s welcoming,” McCartney Knighton said.
The bridge also has been a site for protests in the wake of the Philando Castile shooting. As recently as June 16, protesters used the bridge to block I-94 by entering at the onramp adjacent to the bridge when St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted for the shooting, according to the Star Tribune.
The Dale Street Bridge is also called “The Bridge of Hope.” Community organizers want the bridge to be a sign of hope and to reflect people who live there and their community.
They hope to include art as a part of the bridge and have it reflect the Rondo community. The Summit-University Planning Council is advocating for an artist to be involved in the project, according to Werner.
“It shows the community they’re valued,” Werner said, “and it tells others from outside the community that it’s a strong place and that people value it.