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Listening to Rondo: Interstate 94 as acoustic territory

Introduction


Building is a complex activity. It makes people aware and

take heed at different levels: at the level of having to make

pragmatic decisions; of envisioning architectural spaces in the

mind and on paper; and of committing one's whole being,

mind and body, to the creation of a material form that captures

an ideal. Once achieved, architectural form is an environment

for man. How does it then influence human feeling and consciousness?

- Yi-Fu Tuan (Tuan, 106-107)


The act of building infrastructure is an expression of ideological commitment as much as it is an exertion of vast amounts of physical and intellectual labor. The planning of where we will work, play and live – and how we will get between those places – represents more than the sum of architectural blueprints, engineering equations and city council meetings, to say nothing of the actual construction of buildings, roads, and rail. What is often obfuscated by all of the requests for proposals and federal grant applications is what these projects say about the way elected (and sometimes unelected) officials imagine the commons, the spaces where their constituents will interact with one another. The epigraph above points toward the ideological aspect inherent in building, framing it in the context of the felt presence of the human: how do these structures make us feel?

This essay is about the sounds of one such piece of infrastructure, the interstate, and their effects on the people who hear them. Conventional wisdom would point a discussion of interstate sound toward the drivers who experience them on their way home, to work, or places in between. Indeed, cars and their drivers will be a part of this essay. However, I am more interested in how the sounds of the interstate act upon those who interact with them outside of the confines of a vehicle: pedestrians, school children, cyclists, or the state employees who mow the grass and pick up the trash. Those who interact with the interstate as non-drivers experience it in a profoundly different manner compared to those who drive along its surfaces. I am interested in what those differences may say about the interstate as a busy, dangerous, noisy place.

I should also clarify that this essay is not about just any interstate, though in some cases conclusions will apply to many interstates across America. Instead my interest is focused on a specific site, Interstate 94 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In particular, I am interested in the portion of I-94 that runs through Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. The historic boundaries of the neighborhood followed from Lexington Parkway on the west side to Rice Street near the state capitol to the east. University Avenue served as its northern border and Selby Avenue on the south. A thriving epicenter of the Twin Cities’ Black community in the early twentieth century, large swaths of Rondo were demolished and then paved over to create Interstate 94. Eighty percent of Saint Paul’s Black community lived in Rondo at the time of its construction in the late 1950s and early 1960s – one out of every eight had their homes destroyed in order to create I-94. (Cavanaugh, 94-95) In total, seventy two percent of the homes demolished during I-94 construction had been owned by African-Americans. (Cavanaugh 94) The questions of interstate sound and place as they interact in Rondo are then, from the very beginning, concerned with the history of racism in America.


Figure 1. Map of the historic Rondo neighborhood with path of future I-94, created by James Peter Gerlich. Courtesy of Minnesota State Historical Society Gale Family Library.


Competing Futures

Recently there has been additional interest in redeveloping the portion of I-94 that runs through Rondo. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is currently conducting a study to gather information and public feedback on the interstate in order to gauge potential alternatives. Multiple non-profit organizations have been created to promote specific redevelopment initiatives for the area. These various constituencies view the Rondo redevelopment project as an opportunity to pursue economic revitalization, racial and social justice, historical redress, environmental activism, and the bundle of transit policy principles collectively referred to as “new urbanism”. (Garde, 453) These ongoing dialogues concerning the future of Rondo and I-94 are partially responsible for my interest in this topic.



Figure 2. Rondo Avenue and Arundel Street with streetcar in middle ground, circa 1940. Courtesy of Minnesota State Historical Society Gale Family Library.


Figure 3. I-94 looking east from Chatsworth Street pedestrian bridge, December 19, 2022.


At the moment there are two prominent non-profit organizations within the Twin Cities advocating for I-94 redevelopment between downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul. The first is Reconnect Rondo, an organization administered by current and former Rondo residents, including several who have lived in Rondo since before the construction of I-94. In brief, the organization’s proposal is to construct a land bridge over I-94 from Grotto Street to Chatsworth Street, a distance of approximately five blocks. The bridge would “cap” the interstate, keeping I-94 in place but allowing it to function as a tunnel from Grotto to Chatsworth. Above the interstate would sit a new African American Cultural Enterprise District, featuring a public park, a community center, retail business, as well as mixed-use and single family housing. The proposal mirrors other recent interstate capping projects such as those in Dallas (Klyde Warren Park) and Kansas City (South Loop Link project).


Figure 4. Rendering of I-94 land bridge facing eastward, connecting St. Anthony Avenue and Concordia Avenue. Courtesy of Reconnect Rondo. Architectural renderings courtesy Design by Melo and Visuals by James.


Reconnect Rondo’s website describes their proposal as a “restorative movement”, one that is “eager to right the wrongs of the devastation caused by the original construction of I-94”. ("Home", Reconnect Rondo website) Themes of justice, equity, and redress are prominent throughout the organization’s website. ("The Big Idea", Reconnect Rondo website) It is clear that racial justice is a primary motivation; Reconnect Rondo views their proposal as a means to redress the racist public policy decisions that caused the destruction of the neighborhood. The land bridge is also pitched as an economic stimulus for the area, providing construction jobs as well as new business opportunities and retail for the neighborhood. These issues of racial justice and economic justice are bound up with one another. During its hey-day in the early twentieth century Rondo was a dynamic economic zone for the Twin Cities’ Black community, a site of vibrant economic activity akin to Tulsa’s famed “Black Wall Street”.

The second non-profit seeking to redevelop I-94 in and around Rondo is the Twin Cities Boulevard project. The organization describes its project as “a vision to replace I-94 between downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul and reclaim freeway land for surrounding communities”. ("Home", Twin Cities Blvd website) Instead of covering a portion of I-94, the Twin Cities Boulevard organizers propose removing the entirety of I-94 between Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and Marion Boulevard in St. Paul. In place of the interstate would sit a seven and a half mile boulevard featuring protected bike lanes and bus rapid transit lines. Like Reconnect Rondo, the organization’s online materials focus on restorative justice for impacted communities, particularly BIPOC communities, that were displaced by I-94’s construction and harmed by its fifty year existence. However, whereas Reconnect Rondo’s concerns are squarely focused on racial justice, Twin Cities Boulevard’s vision aligns more closely with the principles of New Urbanism, an urban planning movement that advocates for a return to principles like transit oriented design and traditional neighborhood structure. By this the organization means densely populated, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that privilege green space and transit over personal vehicles. Twin Cities Boulevard, they argue, would allow for a more livable, healthy, equitable Rondo by removing the area’s largest polluter and replacing it with a safer form of infrastructure. We have then, in the broadest terms, a question of redesign vs replacement, reform versus abolition, both framed in the context of social justice.


Figure 5. Rendering of potential transit boulevard, courtesy Twin Cities Boulevard project.


It is this more expansive focus and emphasis on new urbanist principles that sets the two organizations apart. In fact, the Twin Cities Boulevard website specifically critiques the Reconnect Rondo proposal. From the group’s website:

Instead of designing and promoting alternatives to remove the highway and repair its harms, MnDOT and the Rethinking I-94 project process have prioritized the perpetuation of the status quo … Unfortunately, the highway lid (also called a land bridge or cap) that is proposed by the nonprofit Reconnect Rondo—and supported by MnDOT—also fails to address these core issues. ("Home", Twin Cities Blvd website)


In an interesting rhetorical move, the statement ties Reconnect Rondo to the interests of the state department of transportation. In my own research I have struggled to find direct ties between the two, or examples of MnDOT publicly supporting the Reconnect Rondo proposal over other alternatives. However, the Reconnect Rondo plan did receive a $2 million federal grant this February that will undoubtedly make it more appealing in the eyes of the DOT. (City of St. Paul website, 2/23/23) MnDOT’s Rethink I-94 study is ongoing and open for public comment; if the Twin Cities Boulevard website is any indication, it will be a high stakes and hotly contested issue.


Figure 6. Image of MnDOT “Rethink I-94” project decal. Placed on Chatsworth Street pedestrian bridge, December 13, 2022.



A Bit of Interstate History

The I-94 redevelopment project is far from the first time that a Twin Cities interstate highway has sparked intense debates among community members, traffic engineers, and public officials. In 1964 construction began on the portion of I-35E that was to run through downtown Saint Paul. Initial construction proceeded smoothly and land was acquired through eminent domain similar to the process used to construct I-94 through Rondo. However, the project hit a major roadblock in 1969 when a community group, Residents in Protest 35E (RIP 35E), was formed to organize against the completion of the project. (Cavanaugh, 129-132)

RIP 35E was made up of several neighborhood groups from the affluent Summit-University area located at the top of the bluffs overlooking the interstate. Interestingly, the RIP 35E protestors were activated to begin their organizing not when initial construction began, but only when MnDOT began the noisy road grading process. Indeed, it was the noise and vibration of road grading machinery that triggered the community members to fight the construction of the interstate. We can imagine the residents of Summit-University wondering: if road grading machinery is so disruptive to our quiet existence on the bluff, what would the interstate traffic noise be like? This question sparked a nearly twenty year period of intense political squabbling. (Cavanaugh, 138) Armed with newly implemented federal environmental legislation and friends in high places (including neighbors in the state legislature) RIP 35E fought a protracted political and legal battle that culminated in significant concessions from the state. The portion of I-35E through downtown Saint Paul officially opened in the fall of 1990 as a parkway with only four lanes, a 45 mile-per-hour speed limit, and a ban preventing heavy trucks from using the road.

The limits placed on I-35E by the RIP 35E protestors are still in place to this day. As a case study the I-35E project stands in stark contrast to the history of I-94. In Rondo, community organizers were unable to prevent the destruction of their neighborhood. The interstate was built below-grade, a move that provides modest noise reduction, however this was pursued in large part because of enterprising engineers interested in an innovative design, not on behalf of the needs of the community. (Chris Wells, Macalester College, personal communication) In contrast, the residents of Summit-University won consequential and durable privileges for a stretch of highway within earshot of their homes.

The case of I-35E illustrates that sound, noise, and vibration have a strong history in the Twin Cities as a framework for organizing against the negative effects of an interstate highway. It is surprising, then, that neither Reconnect Rondo nor Twin Cities Boulevard make more than passing mention to the sounds of I-94 and their deleterious effects on Rondo and other communities. I am curious why this might be the case. The experience of existing within the proximity of an interstate highway makes it clear that the sound of the interstate is one of its most sensorially arresting properties. Over the Fall and Winter of 2022 I spent much time in Rondo at the intersections of I-94, filming, recording, and listening to the site. In what follows I hope to organize this ephemera into a narrative that constructs I-94 as an acoustic territory, one that acts upon the bodies of those who find themselves within its sonic clutches. This conception of interstate as acoustic territory argues that what the interstate is is more complex and subjective than what can be comprehended visually or conveyed on a map. More than a physical barrier separating the movement of people (ironic given the interstate’s ostensible purpose), the interstate’s sonic properties are an important part of what makes it what it is. I hope that by focusing on the sonic aspects of the interstate I can provide one more case study that illustrates the urgent need for a rethinking of I-94; one that prioritizes those who live in and among it everyday.

In his book Acoustic Territories, Brandon Labelle defines the acoustic territory as a contact zone, a site of political and social tension enacted through echoic, reverberant resonances. (LaBelle, xviii-xix) The ongoing discussions and disagreements around the Rethink I-94 project, particularly discussions of economic and racial justice and historical redress, emphasize the political and social tensions of urban transit policy in the Twin Cities. Hearing the interstate as an acoustic territory is productive because it reveals some of the ways in which these political and social tensions are heard and felt. Through the sounds of I-94 we can hear these tensions, through experiencing the interstate directly we might also feel their effects.

In Labelle’s book and in this essay the acoustic territory is understood as both a site and a process, a territory and a territorializing force. Regarding the first point, Labelle asserts that:

Acoustics must be emphasized as a framework by which to reflect upon the built environment as a territorial arena in which sounding out works to secure forms of attunement and communal support, linking or breaking away. (LaBelle, 177)


In this context I-94 shows up as one such territorial arena – where the positioning and jostling between different social and cultural forces are made audible. The second point, the acoustic territory as a territorializing force, is made apparent through site-specific acts of listening and being. Through an analysis of field recordings, images, and acoustic experiments I hope to highlight some of the ways that I-94 acts upon the people who are forced to interact with it.


Field Trips

Over the course of writing this essay I made three trips to I-94 at various locations within Rondo. I hoped to experience firsthand how it feels and what it sounds like to interact with the interstate in these places. On December 1st I explored the area around Grotto Street and points east to Dale Street. On the 13th I was further east in what used to be known as “deep Rondo”, the eastern part of the neighborhood, near Farrington Street, Western Avenue, and the Mackubin Street pedestrian bridge. Finally, on the 19th I returned to Rondo to listen at the area around Lexington Parkway and Chatsworth Street, on the western end of the neighborhood formerly known as “upper Rondo”. During each of these trips I had access to some form of sound measuring device, allowing me to take decibel readings at various locations throughout the neighborhood. During the December 1st trip I had access to a phone app, but by the 13th I had secured a decibel meter that allowed me to take more accurate readings.


Figure 7. Chatsworth Street pedestrian bridge over I-94. Facing westward toward Lexington Parkway. December 19, 2022.


On December 1st, armed with my iphone decibel meter app, I took some preliminary recordings on the pedestrian bridge that crosses I-94 at Grotto Street. Here the traffic noise consistently hovered between about eighty five and ninety decibels, touching one hundred when a particularly loud semi-truck would pass below me. In taking these readings I came to realize that the interstate has a curious sonic property in which it is simultaneously dynamic as well as static. Dynamic in the sense that the quantifiable sound emitting from the roadway is always in flux, yet static in the sense that the interstate’s noise is a constant feature of the environment. As I stood on the bridge over I-94 I could see and hear these fluctuations in sound; as a truck would pass underneath the decibel meter would spike, a relative lull in cars would cause it to drop. Yet for the entire duration of my walk around I-94 its sound was a constant assault on my body; audible differences were perceptible yet simultaneously rendered meaningless. It was as if the persistent thrum of road noise were flattening my perception of any differentiating features. This flattening became more apparent as I crossed the bridge and walked further away. The greater the distance I put between myself and the interstate the less I was able to perceive differences in sound; the interstate sounds became an undifferentiated mass hovering within, above, and around me.

After crossing I-94 at Grotto Street I continued east towards Dale Street. As I walked I began to notice differences between I-94 here in Rondo and the I-94 I was more familiar with in my own Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. The pleasant sounds of chirping birds that I am so used to in Prospect Park were noticeably absent for much of my time in Rondo. Instead it was the sounds of the interstate that were a constant feature of the environment. In Prospect Park large concrete noise canceling panels rise out of the ground on either side of I-94, a measure meant to shunt road noise upward and away from the homes that abut the highway. No such panels exist anywhere in Rondo, instead the only means for noise abatement comes from the fact that the interstate runs below-grade, i.e. not at the same level as the side streets that run parallel to it. Yet I-94 in Prospect Park is also below-grade, at least in the sense that the river bluffs keep the houses well above the interstate for most of its path through the neighborhood.

The sound panels that run along either side of I-94 through Prospect Park as well as the interstate’s routing in general are the result of lobbying by neighborhood residents during initial construction. Just like during the RIP 35E protests years later, it was the affluent, predominantly white residents of Prospect Park who had the political cache to exert their will on the department of transit. As is the case throughout much of the United States, the path of urban interstates maps the locations of communities who possessed the energy, free time, and power to resist their intrusion versus those that did not. The placement of sound abatement panels in Prospect Park serves as a visual and audible marker of MnDOT’s priorities; denoting the places and people who the department wishes to shield from the interstate’s thrum.

I came back to Rondo on December 13th, this time armed with a decibel meter. I arrived at around 8:45 am, hoping to catch the tail end of the morning commute. I met I-94 at Farrington Street in deep Rondo about halfway between Western Avenue and Rice Street. At Farrington I took decibel recordings that approximated what I had observed two weeks earlier: road noise was consistently above eighty five decibels, frequently hovering between ninety and ninety five. While walking on Farrington toward I-94 I observed in myself a feeling of apprehension as I neared the interstate, hearing its thrum slowly increasing in volume as I walked. When I arrived at I-94 a series of cars sped by, followed by an ambulance blaring its siren, then a number of semi-trucks in rapid succession, all of them creating a cacophony of engine noise, squelching brakes, and jangling cargo noise. Those sounds emanating from the roadway made me stop in my tracks and think “do I really need to do this?” The thought of crossing over and back for the sake of my little experiment suddenly seemed unappealing. I forged ahead with my walk, but only later did I realize that this moment of hesitation was a significant example of the interstate’s territorializing force. In that moment I-94 acted as something like an acoustic barrier, an invisible threshold that made me second guess myself.

The interstate is often theorized as a barrier or a type of obstacle to be overcome, but this is usually couched in visual terms. The name Reconnect Rondo, for example, immediately calls forth visual imagery of I-94 as a barrier, a disconnect that needs to be bridged. This language frames the disconnect as a spatial one, a physical boundary to be crossed. Yet my experience highlights that this boundary is not only visual but also sonic. I-94 is not daunting solely because of its size, though it unequivocally is daunting for that reason, rather it is the combination of visual and sonic stimuli that make I-94 so daunting to cross. Its aural characteristics and its visual appearances both communicate to the pedestrian “do not cross”.

When I returned for the final time on December 19th I had an experiment in mind. My first two visits had illustrated the territorializing aspects of the freeway. I also experienced how that territorialization showed up differently depending on where I was located within the neighborhood. Using the decibel meter, I now hoped to quantify those differences through decibel readings at various points along my journey. Below is a diagram depicting the route I took from the Lexington Parkway light rail stop down Chatsworth Street to the pedestrian bridge crossing I-94. To the right, red diamonds display decibel readings at each location with their relative size indicating sonic intensity.

Figure 8. Diagram depicting decibel readings along Chatsworth Street, December 13, 2022.


The map shows that sound is most intense on the Chatsworth pedestrian bridge (90 dB), followed by the intersection of Chatsworth and University Avenue. From University Avenue the readings decrease as they move south to Fuller, before beginning to increase again as they near I-94. This diagram illustrates the complexity of the urban soundscape as it is experienced on the ground. My investigation focused on the acoustic territory of I-94, but the readings show a second, slightly less prominent acoustic territory at Chatsworth and University. The decibel readings show that I-94 is a prominent acoustic territory within the Rondo neighborhood, but it is not the only one. As a pedestrian I could feel these acoustic territories “bumping into” one another as I walked back from I-94 toward the train. As I left I-94 I could still hear and feel the interstate, gradually fading away but still present in my body. It wasn’t until I began to enter another acoustic territory that the sounds of I-94 dissipated. In other words, I did not feel as though I simply left an acoustic territory and entered a neutral, deterritorialized space. Rather, the sounds of one acoustic territory faded only when they were gradually crowded out by those of another.

As I left I-94 for the final time and walked north along Chatsworth toward the train and my home, I couldn’t help but feel that the sounds of the interstate were following me – in Derridean terms one could say I was “haunted” by them. When I began my trip at the corner of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue I could not hear I-94 at all. Instead, I was immersed in a different acoustic territory with its own sounds and territorializing force. As I walked to Chatsworth Street and then south I began to hear the thrum of the interstate, growing louder little by little as I approached. Arriving at St. Anthony Avenue and then the pedestrian bridge, I was overwhelmed with the sound of the interstate. Now firmly in the grasp of this new acoustic territory I could not escape its sounds as they bounced off of me and made their way into my ears. When I finally had had enough, I made my way to leave along the same route I had come. But this time my experience was completely different. For almost the entirety of my eight block walk I could clearly hear I-94. In the same locations where once I could scarcely hear the interstate, now it seemed to be all that I could hear. It was as if, by spending time in I-94’s acoustic territory, its sounds had penetrated my body and had taken up residence there. It was not until I entered a new acoustic territory that I felt the grip of those sounds begin to lessen.

Figure 9. Facing south on Chatsworth Street pedestrian bridge toward Concordia Avenue. December 19, 2022.


Concluding Thoughts


Places come into us lastingly; once having been in a particular place for any considerable time -or even briefly, if our experience there has been intense- we are forever marked by that place, which lingers in us indefinitely and in a thousand ways, many too subtle for us to name

- Edward Casey (Casey, 688)


It is my hope that by theorizing I-94 as an acoustic territory I have illustrated some of the ways in which interstate sound impacts the day-to-day existence of those who live, work, and play along I-94: that not only is sound a part of what I-94 is, its sounds are a part of what it does to the people who interact with it. The redevelopment of I-94 is a crucial urban planning project that will impact the lives of thousands of Minneapolis and Saint Paul residents for the next generation. Public policy decisions made over the next several years have the potential to transform Rondo in a remarkably positive way, or to continue down a path that deprioritizes its health and well-being at every turn. Both Reconnect Rondo and Twin Cities Boulevard are engaged in critically important and high-stakes work. My goal in this essay is to assert that the stakes of that work can be heard in the sounds of I-94, and that those very sounds should not and cannot be ignored when visualizing an alternative future. Yet It is also important to acknowledge the limitations of a sound-first approach, the type of which I have engaged in throughout this essay. A future where electric vehicles have replaced gas-powered cars and trucks would be a profoundly quieter one. But on its own an EV-revolution would do little to combat the effects of climate change that are so desperately needed. (Wells, 294-295) Whatever the future holds for transit planning in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, solutions must engage with the totality of the effects of the car-dominated transit system that has shaped our cities for the better part of a century.


Notes

1. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space & Place : The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 106-107.

2. Patricia Cavanaugh, “The Politics of Building Urban Interstates: A Contextual Analysis of Twin Cities Cases,” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2008), 94-95.

3. Cavanaugh, “The Politics of Building Urban Interstates,” 94.

4. Ajay Garde, “New Urbanism: Past, Present, and Future,” Urban Planning 5, no. 4 (2020): 453-463.

5. “Home,” Reconnect Rondo, last modified 2022, https://reconnectrondo.com/.

6. “The Big Idea,” About, Reconnect Rondo, last modified 2022, https://reconnectrondo.com/vision/the-big-idea/.

7. “Home,” Twin Cities Boulevard, last modified 2022, https://www.twincitiesboulevard.org/.

8. “Principles of Urbanism”, New Urbanism, http://www.newurbanism.org/newurbanism/principles.html.

9. “Home,” Twin Cities Boulevard, last modified 2022, https://www.twincitiesboulevard.org/.

10. “Federal Grant Invests $2M In Reconnect Rondo Restorative Development Project,” City of Saint Paul, published February 28, 2023, https://www.stpaul.gov/news/federal-grant-invests-2m-reconnect-rondo-restorative-development-project#.

11 . Cavanaugh, “The Politics of Building Urban Interstates,” 139-142.

12. Cavanaugh, “The Politics of Building Urban Interstates,” 138.

13. Professor Chris Wells, Macalester College, personal communication, December 19, 2022.

14. Brandon Labelle, Acoustic Territories : Sound Culture and Everyday Life, Second Edition (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), vii-x, also xviii-xix.

15. Labelle, Acoustic Territories, 177.

16. Edward Casey, “Between Geography and Philosophy: What Does It Mean to Be in the Place-World?,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91, no. 4 (2001): 688.




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