The Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis
photo © Patricia Bour-Schilla
According to the University of Minnesota website, the Central Corridor will link three of the greatest traffic generators in the region: downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota, and downtown Saint Paul with an above-ground train (the LRT) running from downtown Saint Paul, past the Minnesota State Capitol, along University Avenue, through the university’s Minneapolis campus, to the Hiawatha light rail line in downtown Minneapolis. In 2006, at the prompting of Mayor Christopher Coleman, the Central Corridor Planning Committee laid out its vision for the future of the corridor:
The Central Corridor will build on its assets to become a place that has stronger businesses, more vibrant neighborhoods, and more beautiful urban places. Along University Avenue and in the downtown, the Corridor will invite residents, shoppers, employees and visitors to linger on safe, pedestrian-friendly, attractive, tree-lined boulevards; establish a home and sense of stable and diverse neighborhoods; and work and invest in an area that provides a range of employment and economic opportunities.
As the light rail approaches, many are concerned about the impact construction will have on businesses and communities on the Central Corridor route. For some, the light rail is reminiscent of the urban renewal projects of the 1960s, which resulted in the construction of Interstate 94 through the center of Saint Paul’s independent and thriving Black community. This project had devastating effects, which, according to the Rondo Avenue Inc. website, “displaced thousands of African-Americans into a racially segregated city, and a discriminatory housing market, that we weren’t ready for and that wasn’t ready for us.”
In Saint Paul, despite its relative poverty, the Rondo community was unique because a large number of its businesses were Black-owned. Rondo residents were well educated, safe to leave their doors unlocked, mutually supporting, and independent from outside communities. When I-94 was built, many Black-owned businesses and over 608 homes were destroyed. Only in the late 1980s were measures taken by the Summit-University Planning Council to account for the devastating impacts of I-94.
Similar urban renewal projects begun throughout the country in the 1950s-1970s disproportionately affected low-income minority and African-American communities by destroying huge sections of their neighborhoods.
Unlike these ravaging governmental programs, which centered on “producing wealth through real estate developments,” the current project, says leading specialist on LRT construction mitigation Bill Knowles, “is what you asked for.”
But what exactly did we ask for? Moreover, will the result still amount to the dislocation of low-income residents? How does the construction of the LRT figure in the haunted debates about community growth, gentrification, and dislocation in a post-industrial city?
In response to Saint Paul’s history with Rondo Avenue (later renamed Concordia Avenue), city and county officials have made an effort to disseminate information and listen to the concerns of the community. In this sense, University Avenue is not a repeat of I-94, when local residents were unable to participate to ensure the health of their community. Federal Environmental Justice Title VI law requires transportation projects not negatively impact communities of color and low-income communities as was common with earlier federal projects.
As late as mid-summer of 2009, however, concerns of the Saint Paul community are yet to be fully addressed in negotiations with the Metropolitan Council. Community organizations and the University Avenue Business Association (UABA) want support for small businesses throughout construction of the LRT to mitigate impending tax increases and loss of revenue. Community organizations and UABA interests include providing support for small businesses before, during, and after the construction of the LRT to mitigate impending tax increases and loss of revenue. The Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation has provided the strongest voice arguing that the project may not be focusing enough on the real needs and issues of the community. Executive Director Nieeta Prestley of ASANDC states, “If the underlying premise is to ‘spur’ economic development, then the building of the LRT must be done right from start to the finish.”
The Central Corridor Planning Commission’s vision statement warrants a response. Although countermeasures are in place to address anticipated problems, and although Bill Knowles argues that increased foot traffic will offset parking problems, gentrification is here to stay. This is not another Rondo. It is still Rondo. What does this mean?
The LRT along University will produce the same process of dislocations that started in the mid-1950s. Light rail is another signifier of the cultural shift that has already taken place in a district central to post-baby boomer business and other urban professionals. The Central Corridor is one response to this shift in our economic climate. If people had instead asked for more jobs, cleaner streets, a remedy to traffic congestion, less private sector and more service-centered economic growth, then they would have found out that urban renewal is not usually associated with an equitable assembly of interests. According to political scientist Clarence Stone, “Land values and economic growth are the key issues in community politics.” Urban renewal is the struggle for that land.
University Avenue did not achieve the same community coherence following construction of I-94 that earlier transportation projects did. I-94 reversed many gains of the Rondo community, and those losses reflect a moment in history in which issues of race and class intersected with the national agenda, which continues to distort the importance of Black entrepreneurship, leadership, academic merit, fellowship, and values of African-American communities.
As for the LRT, it is still too early to make clear socioeconomic projections. As we pass through this precarious moment, however, how willing are we to look at Rondo’s past in order to rebuild our commitment to a sustainable community, with all of its members represented? The good news is the involvement of the community, in all of its diversity, and those community efforts to raise awareness and consolidate community interests over those of commerce.