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Realtors' $50K boosts project in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood

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Marvin Anderson speaks at a presentation at the Rondo Commemorative.
Marvin Anderson, co-founder of Rondo Avenue Incorporated, speaks at a check presentation ceremony at the Rondo Commemorative Plaza on August 3, 2018. He is joined by realtors from the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors, Jim Kosmo, a member of the St. Paul Rotary Club, and Toni Carter, Ramsey Co. Commissioner.
Gabriel Kwan | MPR News

The construction of Interstate 94 tore through the heart of St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood during the 1950s and '60s, and members of that largely African-American community have been trying to rebuild ever since.

That journey took another step forward Tuesday when the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors presented a check for $50,000 to Rondo Avenue Inc., an organization dedicated to the neighborhood's revitalization.

The money will go toward the purchase and remodeling of the now-vacant New Jerusalem Baptist Church building on Old Rondo Avenue. The space will be converted into a museum and gathering place for all, said Rondo Avenue Inc. co-founder Marvin Anderson.

"First and foremost, we're going to have programs and activities here that will benefit the whole community," he said, including chess classes, poetry slams and health seminars. "Next summer, this place is gonna be filled with elders, with kids, with residents throughout the community, but it will also be a place for people to come to atone and reconcile."

Anderson called the Realtors' group contribution "a form of atonement" for the acts of real estate brokers who refused to help Rondo residents resettle near their original homes after being displaced by the interstate.

Rondo was once Minnesota's largest African-American community, a harbor for people escaping discrimination and home to a thriving arts scene. The interstate cut the neighborhood in two, displacing some 650 families and fracturing its identity.

In 2015, city and state leaders apologized for the bulldozing of the neighborhood to make way for the highway.

While many applaud the coming church rehabilitation and other future plans — Anderson said his organization will spearhead the construction of a land bridge across I-94 — opinions on Rondo's progress are mixed.

Vaughn Larry, a community organizer in Rondo, said that while the gestures from real estate brokers and government officials were commendable, Rondo is still plagued by expensive housing and a lack of businesses.

"These problems are everywhere but they're worse here," Larry said. "[Rondo] hasn't recovered, and I don't know if it ever will."

The back door of New Jerusalem Baptist Church
The back door of New Jerusalem Baptist Church, which was purchased by Rondo Avenue Incorporated with help from sponsors. October 3, 2018, Rondo, St. Paul.
Gabriel Kwan | MPR News

Others hold a more cautiously optimistic view. 

"This is a small way that we can continue the history and the legacy, not only of Rondo but of our dad as well," said Marvin York, a son of one of New Jerusalem's former pastors. "This is the realization of a lifelong dream," said Mitchell York, next to his brother. "And it's a beautiful thing."