See more of the story

Mikeya Griffin is a child of Rondo, with a great aunt and uncle migrating to St. Paul from Mississippi 80 years ago. They first settled in Highland Park, but were promptly "directed" to Rondo, the city's traditional Black neighborhood.

Streams of relatives followed, looking to carve a better life.

Makes perfect sense, then, that Griffin's work now as executive director of the 30-year-old Rondo Community Land Trust is to make housing and commercial properties attainable for low-to-moderate-income families. The land trust buys the land and offers grants to home and business buyers. It holds rights to the land on behalf of the community — greatly reducing costs to subsequent home or business owners.

Eye On St. Paul recently met with Griffin at the land trust's headquarters at Selby Avenue and Oxford Street to talk about her work. This story was edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you come to this job?

A: My husband told me about it. He said, "Hey, when you get home tonight from work, I left you something to read. I want you to read it with an open mind and then let's talk about it." And it was the executive director position for Rondo Community Land Trust, and I was like, "Well, I have a job." I started thinking about it, and then I talked to the previous executive director and a couple of board members. Driving around the neighborhood, I really didn't realize how gentrified it was becoming ... and I felt like it was time to come back.

We have the privilege of doing affordable homeownership opportunities across Ramsey County. And that is something I'm also passionate about. But I have the weight and responsibility to ensure that the legacy of Rondo isn't just the name.

Q: What is the vision?

A: Looking for ways to maintain a level of control from gentrification and displacement and a way to really be the stewards around community development. For Rondo specifically, we are really looking at lifting up our reparative economic development framework. The community had everyone from day laborers to doctors, lawyers. And it was a really rich and interdependent and wonderful place to live that was very cooperative with each other and really took care of each other. And can we get back to some of that?

One of the things that we're doing right now is recreating an African American arts and cultural corridor, which is one of the reasons why we purchased Golden Thyme. We want to be able to activate the corridor, to bring those kinds of things here that people want to come to.

Q: How do you draw the professionals who have moved to the suburbs?

A: When people are connected to their culture, they are going to want to live where they can shop and be with and participate in their culture. Where they feel like it's home. And we want to have different types of housing stock that are available for young professionals. And jobs that are attractive to professionals and new folks starting out.

Q: Where do things stand now?

A: We've spent the last few years building our infrastructure. We're developers and we see ourselves as a community anchor. The community land trust movement was borne out of the Black experience of the civil rights movement when sharecroppers and people were getting kicked off their land because you know, God forbid, the audacity of us wanting to have the right to vote. And at the time in 1968, they created the model which a lot of us use today.

We've been building our own internal capacity. We went from, like, 1.5 employees when I started to nine now. A $300,000 a year budget to $2.5 million a year. We're on track to have 600 people in homeownership by the end of the year. And the goal is over 300 businesses. We have townhouses going up on the corner of Oxford and Marshall.

Q: Let's go back to Golden Thyme. You bought that to be a restaurant incubator, but now Justin Sutherland and his father are developing a restaurant. What happened?

A: We're going to keep doing that, supporting restaurant entrepreneurs here in the community, and it's going to look different, maybe in a different location.

We also said Golden Thyme can be a platform for something else — and it aligned with Justin. He's committed to St. Paul. He always says that he's a St. Paul guy and wanted to lock arms with us and bring a concept here. And what that does for us, again, is it brings something that the community wants around a place to go eat and enjoy.

The concept that Justin is developing will actually be the main flagship location. But there also will also be a continuation of that concept farther down the street at what we're calling Golden Thyme Express. That is in one of our other buildings, at Selby and Victoria.

The second location will be mostly specialty coffees and sandwiches. That, along with a few retailers sharing that space. A platform for entrepreneurs to sell their products to gain a client base. These are going to be very micro, smaller spaces.

Q: What is your broader vision for this corridor — Lexington to Dale?

A: You're going to experience African American History and culture. Beautiful murals. There will be jazz, maybe a fancy cigar bar, maybe there's a microbrewery. The first Black-owned, women-owned brewery will be located here. We'll have artists' crawls and festivals and those kinds of things to attract attention here.