Redlining leaves indelible mark on Twin Cities
May 2, 2018
The history of a segregated city
Northern states have a dark history of segregation, and Minnesota is no different. While the North is often idealized as a universally racially and socially progressive society because of its roots of abolitionism, its racism is only more insidious.
In 1885, Minnesota passed the Equal Accommodations Act, which guaranteed Black Americans equal access to public spaces and hotels. In 1897, Minnesota passed a civil rights law that ensured Black Americans’ right to service in restaurants. Despite these early civil rights policies, Minnesota’s population was loathe to accept racial progress. In 1920, three Black men were lynched in Duluth while a crowd of thousands watched.
Discrimination and inequality were also rampant in the Twin Cities housing system, as in cities across the country. A system of legalized segregation, called redlining, categorized city neighborhoods in terms of “quality,” which was defined as the number of residents of color who lived in the area. These areas were drawn out and colored on maps: an area classified as “green,” was a homogeneously wealthy and white neighborhood, while a blue neighborhood may have been less wealthy and may have had a couple of residents who were people of color—specifically, Black residents. A yellow or red neighborhood had even more Black residents, and were classified as “third” and “fourth grade.” For example, Summit Avenue represents a green classification, while Highland Park wis blue, the area around the Ford plant might be yellow, and the Rondo neighborhood is redlined.
Black residents were in danger of racial violence if they attempted to move into a white neighborhood, as white residents were loathe to accept Black families into their communities not only because of inherent racism, but because the redlining system was racially structured so that if a Black family found housing in a “blue” neighborhood, it would quickly become “yellow” and the market value of homes in the area would plummet. This housing discrimination was institutionally enforced as well—restrictive covenants and discriminatory housing practices permeated the Twin Cities throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a result, the Twin Cities developed as an extremely racially segregated city.
Redlining resulted in a racialized urban setting that still exists today, said Mr. Oto, an Upper School history teacher.
“Not only are we legally racially segregating out cities, we’re also seeing the development of urban poverty. We’re seeing the development of racialized urban landscapes. So when people are saying, ‘Oh, don’t go to the South Side of Chicago, it’s really dangerous,’ they’re talking about it in its context as a Black community. They’re talking about it in its context as a space that’s not safe for white people, because it was an imagined representation of black inferiority and anti-blackness that now has a real manifestation,” Oto said.
“Urban renewal” was another form of redlining in cities. As white families began to move out of cities and into suburbs, its goal was to encourage those white residents to move back into the cities, and to force black residents and families out. One of the strategies to do this was to build freeways through predominantly Black and lower-income neighborhoods. First, developers encountered the least amount of resistance in predominantly Black neighborhoods, or, they were less likely to respect the resistance that existed. Second, urban renewal by policy makers was seen as a way to get Black people out of neighborhoods. Landlords had no desire to maintain the properties that they had in those neighborhoods, but they also knew that the people who lived in their properties had almost no choice but to live there.
“[The landlords] don’t upkeep the properties, because they don’t care, and they know that the city’s not going to hold them responsible for that, because ‘urban renewal’ is supposed to take care of that. And two, they jack up the rent prices, so now you’re paying more to live in a worse place,” Oto said.
Today’s equivalent of redlining manifests itself in gentrification, when wealthier citizens capitalize on the cheaper real estate of poorer neighborhoods. Realtors and developers purchase property only to then ‘flip houses,’ or renovate and sell houses at a much higher price than that at which they bought them, which then increases the neighborhood property values and forces longtime residents out.
“Redlining is very much the reason why our cities look the way they do today, and it’s why we have these misrepresentations, especially in northern, urban areas of black inferiority,” Oto said.
I-94, Rondo, and the Land Bridge
In the 1950s, the St. Paul Rondo Neighborhood, south of University Avenue, was home to almost 85% of St. Paul’s Black population. It was a “red” neighborhood, in antiquated redlining terms, and in 1956, that neighborhood was intentionally destroyed. Interstate 94, which countless Minnesotans and Twin Cities residents use to commute every day, was built directly through the Rondo neighborhood. Originally, the freeway was to be built through University, but the University community, which was made up of University of Minnesota professors and students, protested.
Instead, the developers moved to the Rondo neighborhood, whose residents were either unable to protest or their protests went unheard. As a result, thousands of Rondo residents were displaced into the segregated and discriminatory housing market of the Twin Cities, and the previously vibrant and independent neighborhood was largely erased, according to the Minnesota History Center.
Today, transportation and urban city planners are developing plans for a “land bridge” or freeway cap that would theoretically reconnect the community that had been destroyed nearly 60 years ago.
According to State Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle for MinnPost, “We have to do something to bridge the economic divide. We have to bridge our workforce divide and there are numerous efforts across the region, but here’s a tangible example of what can be done. I’m very positive about this idea.”
In the interview, which can be found on the MinnPost website, Zelle also emphasized that the initiative has to come from the Rondo community.
“This has to come from within Rondo. It has to have the spirit of Rondo. It has to have leadership from Rondo, and I’m just thrilled that we’re accepted to be partners,” Zelle said.
While the land bridge may be a thoughtful gesture of apology, Zelle’s remarks that the project must emanate from the Rondo community is of paramount importance. Without the enthusiastic and active support of Rondo, the bridge is simply a shallow attempt at ‘reconciliation’ that allows the city to rid itself of its historical guilt without actually making amends.
“If this land bridge actually something that the community wants and desires? In reality, what Rondo may need is more money for their libraries. Maybe they need more public funding for their infrastructure projects, maybe infrastructure projects are happening on Summit when they should be happening in Rondo. Those are the types of questions that policy makers and citizens don’t tune into, and as a result we think that we can just solve problems for other people, when they’re perfectly capable of solving problems themselves,” Oto said.
Even while Rondo has had its neighborhood and community destroyed, even while redlining and policymakers have done everything in their power to attempt to displace and erase its vibrant community, Rondo’s story is not just one of tragedy; it’s a story of resilience and survival. Former residents such as Marvin Anderson, who lost his home and whose father lost his business when I-94 was built, and Floyd Smaller, have worked to revive the community by founding Rondo Avenue Inc. and Rondo Days in 1982, which celebrate and preserve Rondo history and work to share the stories of Rondo’s “faith, family, hope, resiliency and the continued growth and successes of the community,” according to Rondo Avenue Inc.’s website, rondoavenueinc.org.
“With Rondo, there’s this point where we actually have to ask ourselves, ‘at what point are we actually willing to let a community find its own solutions to problems? Not in this capitalist liberal sense, but in the sense that we hear what you need and we want to be in partnership with that,” Oto said.
Rondo’s story is one of persistent racial discrimination and a malevolent and intentional neglect of respect, decency, and civil rights, but it is its counter narrative that we must foster: not a story of “poor them,” but a story of the community’s strength in their fight to be remembered. Only by recognizing their true and personal story can we truly and accurately pay homage to the Rondo neighborhood.