In 2013, a two-story commercial building at the corner of Concordia Avenue and Fisk Street in St. Paul, overlooking I-94, went up in flames. Architecturally, the structure was unremarkable. But to many members of St. Paul’s African American community, the building, which had functioned over the decades as a restaurant, coffee shop, dance parlor, and VFW hall, was a cultural landmark: It was the last vestige of the old Rondo neighborhood, a community decimated by freeway construction in the 1960s.
Marvin Roger Anderson, who grew up in Rondo and later co-established an annual festival to commemorate the neighborhood, was determined not to let the building’s passing go unnoticed. He organized a wake for the building, gathered friends and community members, and delivered a eulogy for 820 Concordia. “I also bought a bottle of imported gin, with the intention that we would pour a libation into the ground to restore the property for good use,” says Anderson. “But as people told stories and memories were recalled, more of that gin got used for toasts than libations.” A good time was had by all.
Anderson awoke the next day with a recollection that he had closed the ceremony with a bold declaration, saying, “This is not the end of 820 Concordia! Something will rise on this land, I promise you!” As if to confirm that cloudy memory, an aide for the neighborhood’s city council member called Anderson shortly thereafter, encouraging him to apply for a planning grant to see what could be built on the site.
A museum would be too costly. But what about a park—perhaps a pocket park?
In 2016, Anderson and Floyd Smaller, the cofounders of Rondo Avenue Inc., the sponsor of the annual Rondo Days festival, were joined at the property by a host of politicians and former Rondo community members. With a $250,000 community-development block grant and financial support from a half-dozen foundations, Anderson and Smaller and their collaborators had drawn up plans for a memorial plaza—the first, they believed, dedicated to one of the many minority neighborhoods destroyed by interstate highway construction.