Carl Griffin grew up in the Rondo Neighborhood in the late 1950s, when “there actually was a Main Street” there.
And then, in the 1960s, Griffin watched as the construction of I-94 devastated the landscape and culture of this predominately African-American neighborhood in St. Paul.
“We had a really close-knit neighborhood, and the freeway destroyed it; it really did,” Griffin said Thursday to a group of activists, citizens and community organizers who are concerned about the coming Central Corridor light-rail line.
“And it’s not like our parents didn’t try to fight it,” Griffin added. “They did. We just didn’t have the political will.”
Griffin was one of close to 20 people on a bus tour organized by the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, a nonprofit group that’s working to “give voice” to the poor and minority citizens who live along the Central Corridor. On more than one occasion during the tour, what happened to Griffin’s childhood neighborhood was held up as an example of what must not be repeated during the construction of the 11-mile line, which will use University Avenue to connect downtown Minneapolis with St. Paul.
A series of speakers addressed the foundation’s three main concerns: affordable housing, small-business success and transportation equity. Stops included the Central Corridor Resource Center, where participants studied a sprawling and to-scale model of the development plan; Charles Avenue, a housing success story in the heart of Frogtown; and the Sunrise Building, which contains a dozen minority-owned businesses that stand to be affected by the project.
The speakers came from groups being supported by the foundation, such the housing-focused Community Stabilization Project and the Asian Economic Development Association, which recently filed a federal complaint against the Metropolitan Council over the project.
Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association, spoke as the tour reached the eastern edge of the corridor, near the intersection of University and Western avenues. Thoj and many others are advocating that a station be built at this location, as well as at two other spots that were left out of original plans.
The area near Western Avenue has the highest concentration of ethnic, immigrant-owned businesses in any city in the Upper Midwest outside of Chicago, Thoj said.
The majority of these business owners were reluctant to get involved in controversial corridor conversations, he said. But, faced with the prospect of not having a stop in their neighborhood and losing nearly 87 percent of their on-street parking, they’ve been spurred into action.
“They’re starting to realize that if they don’t get involved, if they don’t get organized, they could be gone in three to four years,” Thoj said. “… They said, ‘My gosh, we’ve invested our blood and our tears in our businesses, and the community depends on what we provide. We have to do something.'”
Thoj put a face on these issues by taking the tour group into the Sunrise Building, a hub of small businesses still bustling with shoppers at 6 p.m. As Thoj talked about the Vietnamese and Hmong proprietors who started their family-run shops there, several lady tour-goers ducked into a boutique to buy jeweled barrettes and waving Maneki Neko statues that they tucked into their bags. Other participants stopped at the small grocery, scooping up baby bok choy or choosing a ripe red persimmon to take home.
Over dinner at the tour’s final stop, the Vietnamese Mai Village restaurant, participants talked in small groups about issues they find perplexing, such as plans to cut the Route 16 bus service in half after the rail line is completed in 2014.
According to Headwaters, 16,419 people rely on the Route 16 bus service each weekday, the vast majority of whom are low-income residents and people of color. In addition, about one-third of the residents along the Central Corridor live between Snelling Avenue and Rice Street, where the three missing stations would be located.
These residents stand to be left behind by the project, Headwaters Program Director David Nicholson said, but Headwaters plans to keep working so they’re not.
Nicholson hopes networking programs like Thursday’s bus tour will help to prevent what happened to Rondo from happening again.
“Our next step,” he said, “is to continue to support groups to get voice and have power in these decisions.”
9/10/09: Correction, per email from Va-Megn Thoj:
The area near Western Avenue has the highest concentration of ethnic, immigrant-owned businesses in any city in the Upper Midwest outside of Chicago,” Thoj said.