What Role Can Public Space Play in the Case for Reparations?: A Study of Rondo Commemorative Plaza
By Ama Kyereme
History of Rondo + Highway
Built in 2018, Rondo Commemorative Plaza is a physical reminder of the destruction of the Rondo Neighborhood by the construction of Interstate 94 and the resilience of the community who lives there. Located in the historic Rondo Neighborhood on the corner of Fisk Street and Concordia Avenue (formerly known as Rondo Avenue) is Rondo Commemorative Plaza. Rondo was a prosperous African American community in Saint Paul, MN until the construction of I-94 in the 1960’s tore the neighborhood apart and forced many to leave the area. After the construction of the highway, the site of the plaza was left as unoccupied land, which then was converted into a commercial building that housed many local businesses. The building was torn down in 2013, but the parcel of land was given back to community organization Rondo Avenue Inc. by the city of Saint Paul. It was then developed into a pocket park that represents the legacy and imagines the future of the Rondo Neighborhood. Rondo Commemorative Plaza was built as part of an initiative to revive the Rondo Neighborhood, and the presence of the park is a key contribution to the conversation on what public space could mean in the case for reparations.
Construction of Park
Enlisting the help of 4RM+ULA Architects and local artists Seitu Jones and Roger Cummings, Rondo Avenue Inc. built Rondo Commemorative Plaza as a memorialization of the historic Rondo Neighborhood and as a suggestion to the future of public space equity for the community. One key component of the park is the memorial wall lining the western half of the space. This wall included a history of the Rondo Neighborhood and its community members, the destruction caused by the construction of Interstate I-94, and hopes for the future of the neighborhood, including a land bridge project by ReconnectRondo. Those in charge of designing the park were all closely related to the neighborhood, either having family who grew up in the neighborhood or being from there themselves. This personal connection to the space is reflected in the design. Several symbolic elements, such as rock from the original building that used to be in the space, are all incorporated to the storytelling aspect of the park’s design. Upon arrival at the park, thoughts of reflection and memory are prompted throughout. This is contrasted by the very modern and sleek design of the park, creating a perfect merger of past and present for some, but a confusing dynamic of time and space for others.
Application of OMAI Model
Under the OMAI model, Ownership takes into account the legal status of public accountability of the space. Rondo Commemorative Plaza is owned and managed by Rondo Avenue Inc., a privately owned nonprofit. The land the Plaza is on was given to Rondo Avenue Inc. who then transformed the space into the pocket park it is today. Because of this, the space ranks 2 for Ownership in its dimension of publicness.
The park’s day-to-day maintenance is provided by Rondo Avenue Inc. instead of St. Paul Parks Services. The management building is located directly behind the park, and it is not uncommon to see a maintenance worker on-site tending to the park. However, there is no private security monitoring the park and local police have the ultimate authority over controlling the safety of the space. Due to these factors, the Management dimension of publicness for the Plaza is 3.
Accessibility is a dimension of publicness under the OMAI model that takes into account physical and legal barriers of access to a space as well as perceived accessibility based on visual and design aspects. Rondo Plaza has a fairly modern design that incorporates several elements of engagement. There is seating throughout the park and its location south of the highway puts it fairly close to public transportation routes and walking distance to the commercial areas of University Avenue. The park is on a corner, so it is surrounded by sidewalks that have curb cuts, and the majority of the park is on one level of concrete. The only green space in the park is a small hill, however, and the entire center portion of the park is only accessible by steps down. Considering these aspects of the park, it ranks 3 in terms of Accessibility.
Inclusiveness is another dimension that is taken into consideration when determining the publicness of space using the OMAI model. Diversity of users and use well as a welcoming atmosphere all influence inclusiveness. The design of the space lends itself to having various uses. From casual leisure activities, to organized community events or educational opportunities, there is very little restriction on how the space can be used. There is also ample seating along the inner perimeter of the park. The space is well lit from both the street lights as well as park lights. The park also encourages inclusiveness by acknowledging the diverse community it serves. While Rondo was historically a predominantly African American neighborhood, the memorial wall also shares stories of the Hmong and Oromo communities, among others, that make up the neighborhood today. These elements, along with the location in the middle of the neighborhood garner Rondo Commemorative Plaza a 4 in terms of Inclusiveness.
Intention vs. Actual Use
Throughout my research of Rondo Commemorative Plaza, I was trying to get a better understanding of how the actual use of the space compares to the original intentions laid out by the designers of the park. However, one of the critical limitations to my research was the fact that I saw little to no people on the majority of my field visits. To this point, I think that this could actually be used to draw some conclusions about how the space is utilized. Within the park, there is a mixture of types of public space. Contrasting the concrete that makes up the majority of the park, there is green space at the center of the park. This small, grassy hill is ideal for a picnic during the warmer months, and would act as a great sledding hill in the winter. Despite this being one of the few open green spaces within the area, I found this space to be utilized the least within the park. There could be several reasons as to why this is the case. It is important to note that while the perimeter of the park does have trees, there is very little shade in the park, and none at all over the green space. The very little shade is provided by a pavilion at the southern end of the park that gets covered during the summers. The rest of the park is left exposed to the sun. This could be one factor influencing the practical usage of the space.
It is also important to note that the entirety of my research of the site was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The social distancing guidelines could have played a major role in how the outdoor public space went underutilized during my research period. In the past, local community organizations would set up programming in the park. Events would be held in association with Rondo Days, a local community festival. Additionally, arts and wellness events, such as the ones hosted by Rondo Plaza Org during the summer of 2019 were very popular within the community. However, this was the only full summer the park was able to experience. While the pandemic has placed limitations on how people are able to gather in public spaces, there are several aspects of Rondo Plaza that lend itself to community gatherings once it is safe and healthy for people to do so.
The position of the space in the neighborhood is also important. While the space is accessible via car and public transportation, the fact that it is tucked away in a corner facing the highway could potentially make it a less desirable place for leisure. Noise and physical pollution from the highway combined with the heat made for an unpleasant experience at times. The space’s atmosphere accurately reflects the modern and urban intention of the design. The architecture firm, 4RM+ULA designed the space “With a mission to creatively renew the urban condition, the proposed design merges memory with modernity and incorporates a mixture of landscaping and on-site interpretative spaces in a quiet escape from freeway noise and traffic. The proposed space is fit for contemplation, education, and inspiration.” While space is ideal for contemplation, education, and inspiration, the presence of the highway does not go unnoticed, and is sometimes overpowering. The highway’s presence is distinct in the way it inundates all your senses. Most noticeably, the sound, sight, and smell of I-94 are palpable. Despite this, the location of the highway does play a large role in the experience of the space. The last panel on the memorial wall petitions the construction of a landbridge on top of I-94 where the historic Rondo neighborhood used to be. As you read the plans for the land bridge, you are easily able to look to your right at the highway and visualize what it would look like for the community to be reconnected again.
Public Space as Recovery and Repair
Ultimately, Rondo Commemorative Plaza, as well as the tentative land bridge, could be used as an example of how public space could play a role in reparations. While the day-to-day use of the space is fairly simple, the concept of Rondo Commemorative Plaza’s construction can be used to help spur a conversation on reparation and racial equity within public space. Rondo Commemorative Plaza is a public space that symbolizes the resilience of Rondo Neighborhood and the community who work so hard to preserve it.
All photos by the author.