Highway I-94 is symbolic to many people but for different reasons. For some I-94 was symbolic because it represented progress. Individuals whose homes and communities were destroyed and displaced viewed I-94 in a much more negative context. Either way the gritty history cannot be denied.
Unfortunately, the evolution of the highway system in the Twin Cities is not an anomaly. According to The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, “interstate highway construction had especially vicious consequences for black neighborhoods… [in many] cities, blacks had limited means of voicing their opposition.” (43). The highway system was overtaking several communities across the United States, which has proven that this epidemic is the rule and not an exception limited to the Twin Cities. The intent is very clear, even with I-94 in the Twin Cities. Some cities went as far as to exclude African Americans from public hearings under the guise of the Jim Crow laws, which was common practice in the South during this time.
Initially city officials explored the idea of connecting Minneapolis with St. Paul in the 1920s. However, the idea didn’t gain much momentum during this time. In 1944, the idea of connecting the Twin Cities would be explored again through the proposal that was presented by the National Inter-Regional Highways Committee, which was created by then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The objective of the committee, according to The Birth of a Metro Highway (Interstate 94), was to add “34,000 miles of rural and urban highways throughout the United States in an effort to [link]… cities with populations greater than 300 thousand.” (1). The construction of the highway system nationwide created connections between cities and across state lines, created jobs for soldiers returning from World War II, and allowed automobile drivers to travel at accelerated speeds. Families that had disposable income were able to abandon the mass transit system and purchase automobiles, which increased the need for alternate routes to local streets. In addition, the highway systems also allowed people to be able to move to farther from the cities into seemingly more desirable locations, which increased the need for highways.
The Highway Department along with City officials reviewed at least two different proposals for the route of I-94. The objective of I-94 was to create the most desirable path for users. According to The Birth of a Metro Highway (Interstate 94), “[the most desirable path was] defined as the shortest or most easily navigated path between two points, [which] created by their plan would best serve the people that used the new highway.” (2). In 1945, George Herrold, who was eighty-two years old at the time, was perhaps one of the most well-known advocates for the northern route of I-94. George was considered to be the founder of city planning and an unbending idealist who vocalized his concerns about placing I-94 in its current location because of the impact and ramifications that it would have on communities and the local economy. The Birth of a Metro Highway (Interstate 94) states that, “using the proposed route would decimate the long established Prospect Park and Rondo neighborhoods, essentially cutting the life out of them. With twenty two different railroad lines already chopping the city into small ‘islands’”. (2). The recommendation of George was to route I-94 one mile north of University Avenue so that the highway would run adjacent to the existing railroad lines. Nevertheless, City officials dismissed George’s recommendation and carried through with their plans to run I-94 through the central route. According to the Natural Areas Central Segment (St. Paul – 1935) map published by CityPages.com the central route was considered to be slums, which was categorized as the “largest negro section in the city.”
Even at this time George understood the social impact that the placement of I-94 would have on local communities and he believed that this social impact should take priority over everything else. Unfortunately, for George and several communities the reality of I-94 was solidified when the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed by then president Dwight D. Eisenhower. The act stated that the federal government would pay up to 90 percent of the costs that were associated with the construction of the highway system, which meant that each state only had to pay the remaining 10 percent. Once implemented this act would single-handedly and systematically work to destroy established communities at large, including homes, churches, schools, mass transit, and local businesses. Some concessions were made for individuals and groups that were able to organize enough resources and vocalize their concerns to the decision makers. According to The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, “interstate highway construction had especially vicious consequences for black neighborhoods… [in many] cities, blacks had limited means of voicing their opposition… Although some highway officials pressed for the northern route to preserve both white and black neighborhoods, Minnesota’s State Highway Department adopted the central route, against both internal dissent and the vociferous protest of Rondo’s community leaders.” (43, 45). However, according to The Birth of a Metro Highway (Interstate 94), “the predominantly African-American communities affected would have a hard time finding new homes in other city communities, and putting the highway through their neighborhood would cause significant crowding issues. He felt the city had an opportunity to create entirely new desire lines with his plan without having to displace entire neighborhoods.” (3). Another issue that African-Americans and other minorities encountered as a result of being displaced were the restrictive covenants that were in place in several communities. The restrictive covenants prevented homeowners and financial institutions from selling homes to minorities because of restrictions imposed on the use of land that were thought to maintain the value and enjoyment of adjoining land, ensuring that these benefits would be preserved for current homeowners.
Local businesses also perished as a result of the construction of I-94. Initially some business owners believed that the highway and the added automobile traffic would increase their revenue. Although many business owners were met with the harsh reality that revenues declined because of reduced foot traffic, whereas, automobile traffic and congestion increased. The Birth of a Metro Highway (Interstate 94) states, “the Twin Cities saw automobile registrations increase 58 percent from 1947-1950, and the additional traffic was finding itself stuck in growing levels of gridlock… [George] felt that city officials were making a ‘serious engineering blunder’. He couldn’t believe that [the] Highway Department hadn’t considered the economic ramifications.” (1, 3). George stressed the impact that local businesses would have by placing hundreds of employees outside of commercial and recreational districts. This scenario played out with the employees at the Capitol and businesses in downtown St. Paul. The separation caused by I-94 meant that the local downtown businesses would also suffer from a decline in sales revenue. As a result, Sears Roebuck was built in close proximity to the state Capitol as a way to bring more business back into the community.
Perhaps, the most controversial decision that was made during the construction of I-94 was the destruction of the Rondo community. I-94 displaced one seventh of the Rondo community with the construction that stretched at least 3-1/2 city blocks wide and it displaced more than 400 families and homes, several businesses, schools, and churches. The Birth of a Metro Highway (Interstate 94) states, “the city depressed the highway through this area in an effort to alleviate noise, but cutting the community in half was a blow from which it would never completely recover.” (4).
The construction of I-94 lasted approximately a decade in addition to several years for planning. According to Minnpost, the project would use “20,816 tons of steel… [and] 321,000 cubic yards of concrete… to complete.” (1). On Monday, December 9, 1968 at 2:15 PM the Twin Cities were finally linked with a ceremonial dedication for the $80 million, 11-mile stretch that would be called Highway Interstate 94. A ribbon tying ceremony took place with a representative from Minneapolis and a representative from St. Paul, which symbolized the joining of the Twin Cities. Following the ceremony, at 4:00 PM I-94 was officially opened to the public for use. I-94 has been a vital lifeline to Minneapolis and St. Paul since it opened. Minnpost states that, “by making driving between Minneapolis and St. Paul – and points in between much faster and easier, the freeway may tend to melt the Twin Cities into more of a single metropolitan area.” (1).