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How Block Parties Can Build Bridges

A bottom-up project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, works with residents to revitalize neighborhoods ripped apart by Interstate 94

This article is adapted from America's Walking Renaissance, a free downloadable book from America Walks. AARP is a sponsor of America Walks and a partner in its Every Body Walk! Collaborative. Used with permission.

Dancing In The Street, Children, Girl, Guy, Nighttime, Block Party, Community Building, Livable Communities

Photo by Jon Pavlica Photography for the Friendly Streets Initiative

A block party on the Victoria Street bridge over I-94 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, included a performance by the Afoutayi Dance, Music & Arts Company.

Laughter, lively music and a lip-smacking appreciation of food from many cultures animated St. Anthony Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a crowd whooped it up at the Better Bridges Bash.

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Even chilly temperatures and gusty winds didn’t dampen folks’ enthusiasm — nor did the unpromising location right next to the roaring traffic on the I-94 freeway. Indeed, that was the point of the event: to better connect neighborhoods on either side of the freeway by improving the bridges and to explore ways to make the area friendlier to people when they are not in cars.

That's why — in addition to enjoying a kazoo parade, a Liberian-American rapper and the Lexington-Hamline Community Band — festival goers wandered into tents where they were encouraged to think expansively about their neighborhood’s future.

Mash Up Of Photos, Girl On Bike, Community Garden, Flower Pots, Street Art, Community Building, Livable Communities

Photos courtesy of the Friendly Streets Initiative

Improvement project examples on display at the Better Bridges Bash included images of (clockwise from top left) a bicycle lane, samples of roadway narrowing bump-outs, decorative streetlamps, plantings and lighting.

"We're seeing that this community is engaged in how the streets feel, and they are letting local leaders know what they want," offered Isaak Rooble, a Somali immigrant who was working with the Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI), the organization that hosted the April 2015 event. Rooble was standing near a gallery of photos showing possible improvement projects that could be done in the mixed-income, mixed-race Saint Paul neighborhood.

People stuck green sticky notes to the ideas they liked; pink ones to those they didn't; and yellow for the maybes. 

Among the photos generating the most excitement:

  • A land bridge covering a section of the freeway with green space
  • Archways, mosaics and murals at entrances to bridges over the freeway
  • Medians in the middle of busy intersections making it easier for people to cross the street

At another tent, people could share their suggestions on an "Idea Tree." Among those wishes:

Isaak Rooble, Table, Pamphlets, Woman Sitting At Table, Community Building, Livable Communities

Photo courtesy of the Friendly Streets Initiative

Isaak Rooble (standing) shows local residents examples of neighborhood improvements, and takes a survey of their own aspirations for the neighborhood.

  • "less cars"
  • "fountains"
  • "a walking path and track"
  • "more street parties"

"I am passionate about community development and helping migrants get involved with the community," said Rooble.

FSI conducted surveys in English, Somali and Oromo (a language spoken in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya) to learn more about issues in the neighborhoods surrounding the freeway. The survey work was part of the organization's "community-led mission," which is "guided by the ideas coming out of neighborhoods," explained Robyn Hendrix, an artist organizer with the group from 2014 to 2016.

Re-Creating Charles Avenue

The FSI evolved from the work of volunteers who were working with neighborhood organizations to make biking and walking safer in Saint Paul.

In the summer of 2011, they sponsored a series of parties along Charles Avenue, which runs through a racially- and economically-mixed community a few blocks from the freeway, to discuss community concerns. The group created a survey to measure residents' opinions and offered a photo gallery of innovative street designs found around the world.

Closing off blocks on Friday evenings, the parties featured food from local restaurants, games and the opportunity for neighbors to get to know one another better.

"More than 700 people turned out and we got a real sense of what the community thought, what they liked and what they didn't," recalls Lars Christiansen, an urban sociologist at Augsburg College who lives in the neighborhood and is now FSI's director.

The ideas folks liked most became the nucleus of the Charles Avenue Friendly Street plan, which emphasized four street improvements:

  1. Better-marked crosswalks at busy intersections
  2. Traffic circles, which help slow the speed of vehicles at low-volume intersections
  3. Medians and other modifications at busy intersections to provide a refuge for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the street
  4. A raised intersection, and sidewalk bumpouts into the streets at select locations

The volunteer committee formally organized themselves as the FSI to build support for the Charles Avenue project among neighbors and on the city council. Construction on Charles Avenue began in 2014 along a four-mile stretch of the street.

"FSI built grassroots support for change in Saint Paul, a city reputed to have lots of opposition to bike and walk projects," observed Jessica Treat, director of Transit for Livable Communities, a Minnesota-focused nonprofit that’s now FSI’s fiscal sponsor.

Treat credits FSI with mobilizing young families and other groups in the city who don’t usually weigh in on planning decisions. That activism showed political leaders the depth of public support for walk and bike projects.

Saint Paul City Council member Russ Stark, whose ward contains a section of the Charles Avenue project, notes that FSI has changed how business is done in Saint Paul. "By talking to people where they live, by using block parties and other means to find out what people value on their streets, they've helped change how we do civic engagement. We usually hear from a vocal minority on projects, but we don’t necessarily know what the public as a whole thinks."

A Neighborhood Destroyed

One of FSI’s major pushes is a project coming out of the Better Bridges Bash to create better bike, foot and transit access in neighborhoods on either side of the I-94 between the state capitol and the Minneapolis city limits. This includes Rondo — the historically African-American neighborhood where famed LIFE magazine photographer Gordon Parks and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins grew up — much of which was bulldozed in the 1960s to construct the freeway.

"It was a beloved community," says Melvin Giles, an FSI community organizer, who remembers Rondo as a young child. "People would walk to the neighborhood store and kids could see all the others kids. They'd play baseball and football in the street. You couldn’t do those things today."

What was once Rondo is probably the worst place in Saint Paul to walk today, with a freeway ripping through the middle of the area and bridges that feel dangerous and dispiriting to cross.

"They seemed not to care a lot about poor kids and African-American kids getting to school, or anywhere else, when they built the freeway," remarks Anne B. Parker, an artist working with FSI who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 25 years.

Conditions are grim on many of Saint Paul's I-94 bridges. Pedestrians endure sidewalks so narrow that they must scrunch together to walk side-by-side, and switch to single-file if another walker needs to pass.

"Safety is an important issue but our aesthetic environment also sends a strong message to residents about what this neighborhood is," says Melvin Carter III, a former member of the Saint Paul City Council who works on early childhood issues as the executive director of the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet. "It has a lot to do with educational outcomes, public safety outcomes, economic outcomes and the general stewardship of the neighborhood.”

"Let me tell you a story," he adds. "One night I was in a neighborhood near here and started talking to some kids about college. They said, 'Man, look at this place. How can I think about going to college when I live in a trash basket?'"

Restoring Rondo

"A lot of outside groups who want to help the neighborhood just come in and start doing stuff — FSI did not do that," says Melvin Giles, explaining why he joined the group. "As an organization we help the community decide what it wants by offering a process for people to think about what they want from their streets — and then we will work with them."

Giles helped convene a series of listening sessions with people in the community. "FSI is not doing things for us, it's doing things with us," he says. "It's not just community engagement. FSI shows you how to turn your ideas into reality."

One of the community leaders Giles contacted is Marvin Roger Anderson, a retired attorney and former Minnesota State law librarian.

"Encouraging bicycling and walking are important to reweaving the Rondo neighborhood, so I am delighted to be working with Friendly Streets," Anderson says. "Biking and walking are healthy. Biking and walking can save you money. We need to create a culture of biking and walking."

Anderson underscores the importance of making Saint Paul comfortable for older walkers. "It's not just cars and crime you have to be careful about, but also bikes. We need to separate the cars, the bikes and the pedestrians, especially on the bridges, like they do on Copenhagen's streets."

The long-term goals of the project are to call on the community's expertise and creativity to inspire fresh thinking about transforming the bridges from barriers into connectors between neighborhoods.

Planned reconstruction of the freeway offers opportunities for big ideas that stir excitement in the community. Ranking high among the ideas proposed:

  • a land bridge
  • wider sidewalks and narrower car lanes
  • dedicated bicycle lanes
  • better winter maintenance
  • greater attention to disabled users
  • traffic calming
  • defined public space and a cultural wall to celebrate the history and art of the Rondo community

In the short term, FSI wants to tap community expertise and creativity for ideas on how to improve the existing freeway bridges.

"The whole point of FSI is to transform streets of fear into streets of joy, in ways both large and small, affecting the physical environment and the emotional one," says Christiansen. 

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about how to improve communities of all kinds. He is the author of The Great Neighborhood Book.

Page published December 2016

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