Many people in the Twin Cities area know something about the history of Rondo—a primarily Black neighborhood in St. Paul that was demolished in the late 1950s and early ’60s to make way for the I-94 freeway. Fewer know about the history of I-35W, but that’s something U of M professor Greg Donofrio and his students are working to change.
Beginning after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, interstates 94 and 35W were part of the massive nationwide effort to build an interstate highway system throughout the United States, creating convenience for many, but serious and persistent harmful consequences for people who were often poor, and often Black.
In 1960, the areas where interstates 35W, 94, and Highway 55 were built were home to about 80 percent of the Twin Cities’ Black population. And because redlining and other discriminatory housing practices had already pushed Black people into “blighted” or less desirable neighborhoods, it was both cheaper to build the interstate through these neighborhoods and likely to be met with less resistance from these communities, who had less social and political influence. The pattern was repeated in cities and neighborhoods throughout the nation. In total, nearly 30,000 people—many of whom were people of color—were displaced in the Twin Cities.
Thousands who lived in these houses and apartments lost their homes. People who rented their homes were not compensated at all, those who owned often felt they were compensated poorly, and there was no assistance with moving expenses or with finding a new home.
With deep involvement from the Twin Cities community, the Minnesota Historical Society, and students in Donofrio’s Heritage Studies and Public History (HSPH) graduate program (which he directs), Donofrio is leading the creation of “A Public History of 35W.” The project seeks to understand how 35W disrupted and divided a middle-class Black neighborhood in South Minneapolis, and to document the many ways in which the freeway has had long-term public health and wealth impacts for people living along its length between 94 and Highway 62.
“As far as we can tell, no one has dug into a freeway at this level of detail,” says Donofrio.
Co-leading the project is Denise Pike, a 2018 graduate of the HSPH program whose work as a student Donofrio credits with sparking the 35W project. With her classmate Kacie Lucchini Butcher, Pike co-curated the exhibit “Owning Up: Racism and Housing in Minneapolis” at the Hennepin History Museum. For their exhibit, Pike and Lucchini Butcher used research from the award-winning Mapping Prejudice project, based at the University of Minnesota. And from that exhibit sprang many conversations, says Pike.
“So we had educators, lawmakers, doctors—every type you could imagine came to see the exhibit and talk with us. It had a far-reaching effect on how people talked about race and racism in our community,” says Pike.
Pike says that she and Lucchini Butcher were repeatedly approached by residents asking if they’d explored the construction of 35W.
Donofrio took that cue as an opportunity. "A Public History of 35W" is part research, part outreach, and part education: a publicly accessible archive of documents, photographs, and oral histories about the construction of 35W; stories from among the thousands of residents who were displaced; and public events where citizens can learn, discuss, and contribute to the project.
One student who gravitated toward the project is 2020 HSPH graduate Tyler McDaniel. Inspired by Pike’s work, McDaniel created workshops for children to artistically interpret the history of South Minneapolis and 35W as part of his capstone project.
Over two days last spring, McDaniel presented the history of 35W’s construction to 8th-grade students at the Clara Barton Open School and facilitated an activity where the students created small art pieces to fill a 20-foot map of 35W on the classroom whiteboards.
“It was really cool to get to hold dialogue with young people and open up space for them to talk about their own experiences related to displacement—a couple students were even able to relate their own displacement back to the freeway,” says McDaniel.
He’s now adapted the project into an interactive online story for educators. Through it, community members can submit their own creative responses.
“My hope is that exploring history in this way will not only be a learning experience, but will help younger people to conceptualize the ‘hidden histories’ beneath their feet and rethink the built environment that they interact with in their daily lives,” he says.
For her part, Pike believes the project is just another milestone in the work that still needs to be done. “The exhibit in 2021 won’t be an endpoint. Just like the ‘Owning up’ exhibit wasn’t an endpoint—the best part is our involvement with the community afterwards,” she says.
“Human Toll: A Public History of 35W” opens Oct. 2 at the Hennepin History Museum and is on display through October, 2022.
The project leaders would like to acknowledge the work of researcher and adviser Dr. Ernest Lee Lloyd, whose 2013 dissertation, “How Routing an Interstate Highway Through South Minneapolis Disrupted an African American Community,” paved the way for much of this work.
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