It’s all about building community—Thomas Dale District 7 Planning Council


St. Paul’s Frogtown developed as the city grew beyond downtown in the early 1880s. The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (now the Burlington Northern) was built along the northern boundary of what is now Frogtown. For more than 100 years, the railroad and its related industries provided employment to residents of both Frogtown and the North End neighborhoods. Much of the housing that lies between Rice Street and Dale Street, north of University Avenue, was built during the 1880s for the workers.

Today, Frogtown is part of the District 7 Thomas Dale Planning Council area, which also includes the Capitol Heights neighborhood adjacent to the state capitol, East Midway, and Mount Airy.

Why is it called Frogtown?

There are several explanations for the name. Any one of them, or all of them could be the reason for the name.

Some say that the name comes from the ethnic slang word for the French people who were the first settlers in the area. Benjamin Lafond, was a French landowner in the area. Lafond Avenue is named for him. It is believed that other streets in the neighborhood—Edmund, Charles, and Thomas—are named for his sons.

Others say that Archbishop John Ireland came up with the name. While standing in Calvary Cemetery he looked across the marshland filled with croaking frogs, and said, “That sounds like a frog town.”

People of Austro-Hungarian descent who lived in the area referred to it as Froschburg
(frog city).

Another theory says that the name may have come from the couplers on railroad cars that were called ‘frogs.” Many railroad workers lived in the area.

Resource: This information is from the Ramsey County Historic Site Survey Report.

Through the years, Frogtown has remained a working class, blue collar neighborhood. Now, as in the past, the community is a gateway to the city for immigrants and refugees, and it continues to show a growth in population. The 2000 Census showed a population of just over 17,000 people—a growth of 19 percent since 1990, compared to a 5.5 percent growth in St. Paul as a whole. The neighborhood continues to be racially and culturally diverse, with fifty percent of its residents speaking a language other than English at home.

Today, Frogtown is at the edge of another rail project. University Avenue, which is slated for the Central Corridor light rail, marks the southern boundary of District 7. Light rail plans spark community concern about the future of the 16A Metro Transit bus line, which runs along University Avenue, connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis. Many District 7 residents depend on public transit, with bus stops at every block. The light rail line, as proposed, would have stations a mile apart—making trips to the doctor or the grocery store difficult. Some fear that the 16A bus could be eliminated. Tait Danielson Castillo, Executive Director of District 7, says, “We are advocating no change in service to the 16A. That’s our line in the sand.”

What are District Councils?

St. Paul, noted for its unique neighborhoods, has been called “the city with fifteen small towns and one mayor.” In fact, St. Paul has not fifteen but seventeen city districts, each with its own District Council. The size of the organization and method of operations varies according to each council’s articles of incorporation and bylaws. Each District Council is a 501c(3) nonprofit corporation with a few paid staff and elected board members who volunteer their time in service of the community.

As an independent organization, each District Council hires its own staff members, including an executive director and/or community organizer, clerical assistance, and a crime prevention coordinator. District Council employees are not city employees. The amounts the city provides the District Councils are calculated on a formula which includes a base amount of $30,000 per district, and then adjusted for population and percent of poverty. Individual allocations average in the range from $33,000-$44,000. A formal City/Agency agreement is required, which includes goals and objectives, work plans, and an evaluation component. City-provided dollars typically help finance staff, office space, supplies, and communications. Citizen participation financing is provided from city general funds, and the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.

Most District Councils are active fundraisers, with many receiving substantial foundation and corporate support. In addition, some organizations receive additional city support for neighborhood development activities through citywide competitive processes.
When District Councils were first established in 1975, an early notification system resolution was also passed. This mechanism requires city departments and agencies to notify district councils, neighborhood organizations, and individual residents of pending city actions that will affect them.

District Councils plan and advise the city on the physical, economic, and social development of their area, as well as on citywide issues. In addition, Councils identify neighborhood needs, initiate community programs, and recruit volunteers. Each neighborhood office serves as an information and referral resource. District Councils inform residents through community newspapers, neighborhood newsletters, flyers, and community events. Each board member is part of a committee focusing on specific issues such as land use, environment, community connections, and crime prevention.

Danielson Castillo has been with District 7 off and on for eight years. First hired as a community organizer in 2000, he left for a time in 2006, then came back as Executive Director in August 2007. So what keeps him here? “This neighborhood has a lot of history—many folks have been here for thirty, forty, fifty years. There is so much potential, there are so many assets, especially along University Avenue.” He sees the neighborhood progressing in a way that highlights those assets while identifying potential improvements.

District 7 traditionally has a low voter turnout. In this presidential election year, District 7 will participate again in the non-partisan voter engagement project “Got Voice? Got Power!” Sam Buffington, community organizer of District 7, will lead this effort in collaboration with District Planning Council 8 and the Aurora-Saint Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Redevelopment Possibilities

Wilder Foundation is moving its headquarters from Frogtown to a new building at Lexington and University. The move leaves a large plot of land to be redeveloped at 919 Lafond Avenue. Bounded by Victoria, Lafond, Chatsworth, and Minnehaha, the property is across the street from the Minnehaha Mall, which also could be redeveloped. Danielson Castillo maintains that redevelopment would be dependent upon the re-alignment of Pierce Butler, which curves sharply toward its intersection with Minnehaha Avenue. Long a controversial topic in Frogtown and surrounding neighborhoods, re-alignment of Pierce Butler would connect to Dale Street, and then to I35E.

A new mixed-use building is planned for University and Dale on the site of the former Western District Police Station. Plans call for retail on the first floor, with senior apartments on the upper floors.

Crime and Community

Frogtown has had a reputation as a crime-ridden neighborhood. That is changing as police and the community have worked together to lower quality of life crimes. In recent years the federally-funded Weed and Seed Program brought funding and resources to help “weed” out crime and “seed” the neighborhood to fight crime.

One of the biggest victories for the neighborhood occurred in 2002. At that time, several street corners saw open air drug dealing. At times, up to fifty people were hanging at those corners to buy and sell drugs. With heavy law enforcement funded by Weed and Seed, police carried out Operation Sunrise and arrested nearly ninety individuals for drug dealing. Community members and the District 7 Council worked together with police to help clean up the crime, and bring a dramatic change to the neighborhood. Weed and Seed was federally funded, and the program ended in 2004.

According to information on the Saint Paul Police website, crime has decreased in Frogtown and throughout the city. The city is divided into grids, which contain 32-40 square blocks. In 1999, grid 88 in Frogtown reported the highest incidence of Part 1 crimes reported in the city (Part 1 crimes include homicide, rape and aggravated assault). By 2004,there were half as many Part 1 crimes reported in grid 88 as there were in 1999.

Quality of life crimes include detox, disturbance calls, disorderly persons, criminal damage to property, weapons violation, prostitution, narcotics, gambling, vagrancy, urinating in public, and other such offenses. In 1999, there were 2,310 calls for service for quality of life crimes in grid 88. By 2004, that number had fallen to 1,000.

Looking to the Future

District 7 shares the former Dale Street Greenhouse building at 533 North Dale Street with the Greater Frogtown Community Development Corporation (GFCDC). Long a community gathering place, the greenhouse had hosted community meetings, cultural and fund raising events, and included a post office. It was a place where everyone was welcome whether they came to buy flowers or not.

District 7 is in the process of gathering information and ideas for events and activities that would once again draw the community to the greenhouse location. Danielson Castillo is talking to artists and gardeners to come to discuss community building.

A new partnership with the District 11 Hamline Midway Planning Council is aimed at training emerging leaders from the neighborhoods. Residents can apply to the Leadership in Support of Neighborhoods (LISN). If selected, they receive a stipend to participate in the year-long program.

The district council communicates by e-mail with many in the community. In addition, a quarterly newsletter, published jointly with the GFCDC, is mailed to every household within the boundaries of the district. Door-knocking also plays a big role in communicating within the district. Since Danielson Castillo believes that person-to-person contact is the only way to build relationships that lead to community building, he goes out on a regular basis to knock on doors and meet people face to face.

The district council operates on an annual budget of $175,000 a year. $80,000 of that amount comes from the city, while the remaining amount comes in the form of grants from the McKnight Foundation and Travelers.

District 7 faces many challenges, but Danielson Castillo is upbeat as he looks to the future of the community, “We need to do what we do best. We understand process, we understand procedure. We also know how to connect neighbors to make this a positive, safe place to live. Our job is to help neighbors make their voice heard.”

Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of St. Paul, lives in the North End neighborhood. Now working as a freelance writer, Mary is retired from the St. Paul Public Schools. She also served as editor of the North End News, a community newspaper.