The Restoration and Reweaving of the Rondo Neighborhood

Rondo Avenue, Inc. interviews Dr. Mindy Fullilove

May 4, 2016

Mindy Thompson Fullilove

On February 26-27, Rondo Avenue, Inc. and the District Councils Collaborative sponsored a set of events featuring Dr. Mindy Fullilove.  Dr. Fullilove is a Professor of Psychiatry of Public Health at Columbia University in New York and the author of such books as “Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities” and “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It.”  Dr. Fullilove will be back in the Twin Cities for the fifth annual Placemaking Residency from May 9-12, 2016.

In her examination of excess mortality among Blacks and Hispanics in U.S. major cities, Fullilove found that this was related to how cities are managed, sorting people by race and class. This included disruption of minority communities and social fracture in cities that have left the nation in a state of demoralization.  Over the past 20 years, Dr. Fullilove has collected stories of the people who understand the fracture and are doing restoration work. From those observations, she has identified elements of urban restoration detailed in her book, “Urban Alchemy.”

For Dr. Fullilove, examples like I-94’s destruction of the Rondo neighborhood, are widespread in the U.S. as “the places with the least political resistance often were easy to put the freeways through.  There were other policies that were destroying minority communities like segregation, urban renewal, and highway construction. With de-industrialization, there was significant job loss. These policies have fallen very heavily on minority communities and led to the current state of affairs in the American city.”

RCP1Marvin Anderson, the co-founder of Rondo Avenue Inc., brought Dr. Fullilove to St. Paul as he leads efforts to reignite a Rondo Historic District.  The organization is building a commemorative plaza adjacent to the freeway and there are discussions underway to redesign bridges crossing the freeway into places that celebrate the virtues of and tell the story of Rondo.

Dr. Fullilove supports Marvin’s ambitions and adds, “With the elements of urban restoration in mind, not only will you restore Rondo, but you’ll strengthen the whole city. The story of Rondo is the story of an African American neighborhood. The neighborhood now includes many other ethnic groups who are not part of the conversation. Keeping the whole city in mind, we have to include everybody, the Somalis, the Hmong [and so forth].”

She continues, “There’s nothing about the [plaza’s proximity to the highway] that would make you think ‘Wow, this is going to be a great plaza!’ because the freeway is so hostile. It disrupted a community. It’s a vicious kind of highway,  like an angry river in the middle of the city. I actually think they should move it. People are rethinking freeways all over the country.”

The challenge of the plaza becomes: “How do you take the completely inhospitable setting and make it the story? How can you fix these problems?  That is the big issue. When we fix eco-systems, we use the term, ‘restoration.’ If a pond is in trouble, we restore the pond. Restoration is the opposite of racial-ization.”

The Rondo Commemorative Plaza, located at the corner of Fisk and Concordia, can become very important and be the anchor for redevelopment. As Dr. Fullilove notes, “this sort of project is where we can come together to connect and restore, to condemn division and celebrate connection.”  She urges that people think beyond the plaza and focus on how to restore a neighborhood that supports current and future residents.

Her book, “Urban Alchemy” is in her words, “a handbook of how you restore the urban ecosystem after the kinds of damage we’ve done.” Dr. Fullilove concludes, “If everybody would step back, read the book, talk to each other, walk the neighborhoods of St. Paul — not just Rondo — but walk all the neighborhoods of St. Paul, they would be more able to make the next step to initiate a process that could lead to the healing of the city.”