“Does Frogtown need to be branded?” questions Tait Danielson Castillo, Executive Director of the District 7 Planning Council. He would first like to know the answer to this question before moving forward with the debate brewing over potential names such as World Cultural Heritage District or Little Mekong for parts of the 150-year-old neighborhood.
Frogtown, located just west of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, has been home to immigrant families since the middle of the 19th century and is currently home to many of the Twin Cities’ Southeast Asian residents. As of the 2000 census, the neighborhood is ethnically diverse: about 24 percent Whites, 38 percent Asian Americans, 22 percent African Americans, nine percent Latino, one percent American Indian, and five percent multiracial.
The one-mile stretch between Dale and Rice Street on University Avenue, or South Frogtown, is teeming with restaurants, shops, and organizations owned and operated by Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Many are mom and pop, family-owned businesses selling everything from shamanistic herbs to homemade cuisine. All of the businesses are stressed these days because of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit (LRT) construction that will begin in August.
One of the parties involved in making a push to brand the businesses along this part of University Avenue as “Little Mekong” is Va-megn Thoj, Executive Director of the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA). Thoj explains that the collective decision to brand the businesses in the area ahead of the construction is to “create it as a destination in order to mitigate the effects of the construction, which will be crucial to the survival of the businesses in the area.”
The Central Corridor LRT construction is projected to last four years. When completed, the line will connect downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul along University and Washington avenues through the State Capitol, Midway, and University of Minnesota neighborhoods.
Behind the Names
|What is Frogtown?
Writing in St. Paul’s E-Democracy Forum, Tait Danielson-Castillo notes:
In the 1860s, the German settlers named the area around Lake Lafond (in the early 1900s the lake was backfilled and housing was built) Froschburg. They named it “the town of Frogs” because there were a lot of frogs. The lake was very swampy and is evident today by the sandy soil in which most of our housing (east of Dale) is built.
Five years ago, Bruce Corrie, Professor of Business at Concordia University’s College of Business and Organizational Leadership, convened a series of conferences to highlight the significant economic impact minority run businesses along University Avenue have had on Frogtown. As a result of the meetings, the name “World Cultural Heritage District” was created to reflect and emphasize the various ethnicities that have contributed to the vitality of Frogtown. Professor Corrie was not available for comment at press time.
Through further discussions, the name “World Cultural Heritage District” sparked the designation “Little Mekong” to describe the Asian-run businesses that stretch from Dale Street to Rice Street and to build on the assets of the neighborhood.
Thoj, commenting on both the “World Cultural Heritage District” and “Little Mekong” names, states, “the function of the names is not to replace or re-brand the neighborhood, but it’s actually to focus attention to the cultural assets that we have in these neighborhoods.” He further explains, “The names will benefit the businesses, which will in turn benefit the Frogtown neighborhood.”
Reaction From Residents and Business Owners
In surveying the Frogtown residents, most did not mind either of the new names to brand parts of the area as long as the name Frogtown remained. Long-time resident John Wexler remarked, “I’ve lived here all my life. It’s always been Frogtown, and it’ll always be Frogtown. He continued, “as long as everyone is happy and getting along, I’m fine with both names.”
Ghassan Bsharat, manager of the restaurant Hook Fish and Chicken, one of the rare non-Asian businesses in the area said, “If the name ‘Little Mekong’ can bring more traffic and business into the area, then I’m all for it.” This sentiment resonated even louder among the Asian merchants. Ngoan Dang, owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Mai Village, agreed, “the name is not as important as the results, the benefits, that will hopefully come from branding the area.
Although no formal process to name a neighborhood exists at the city or state offices, a grassroots approach including discussions and consensus among the neighborhood businesses, organizations and residents is necessary before any new neighborhood name is adopted.
While the names “World Cultural Heritage District” or “Little Mekong” stir up little concern with the people who live and work in Frogtown, the words “Central Corridor project” seems to unnerve most of the people making their livelihood in this St. Paul neighborhood. The question “Does Frogtown need to be branded?” is not as important to them as the question “Will we still have businesses to brand after the LRT construction?”
CORRECTION: A tip of the hat to Steve Clift, who noted that the figures we originally cited for population were from the 1990 census. We’ve replaced them with updated figures [paragraph 2 above.] David Kang got the original figures from U of M statistics dated 2003, which sounds like they should be more recent than 2000 census figures, but turned out to be older.