The relationship between highways and racial injustice exemplifies the kinds of systemic issues that many protesters are now seeking to challenge. Policies that on their face may have appeared to be about easing transportation barriers and revitalizing cities were — and still are — often rooted in longstanding racial prejudice, and carried with them cascading effects that worsened pre-existing inequalities.
“The cities were already segregated, and what happens is that these freeways can act as concretizing the barriers to integration that exist,” said Joseph DiMento, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the co-author of the book “Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways.”
Starting in the 1950s, state and local officials bought into the idea that highways would be welcomed as revitalization tools for struggling downtowns by reducing commuting costs and improving accessibility, which would in turn make those areas inviting to businesses. This interest in highway-building came around the same time as a movement for massive “urban renewal” projects that razed neighborhoods considered blighted. It’s no coincidence that many of these were low-income and black neighborhoods into which discriminatory housing practices after the Great Depression discouraged investment. Affected communities often protested proposals that demolished or tore through their own neighborhoods. But in many cities, protests couldn’t stop plans from barreling forward.
In St. Paul, when white suburbanites shifted from mass transit to automobiles and began calling for easy access into the Twin Cities and between their business corridors, running an expressway through the neighborhood of Rondo became the obvious option. It conveniently sat between the two cities’ downtown cores.
During the first half of the 20th century, Rondo residents were mostly middle and working class, and many owned homes and businesses. The neighborhood had an abundance of gathering places that helped foster a vibrant music, theater and sports scene. And as home to several black newspapers and to the city’s chapter of the NAACP, Rondo was also an active civil rights hub.