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Frogtown Farm: A community vision comes to fruition

For more than seven years, Frogtown Farm has been a community vision slowly manifesting into an authentic project: A 12.7-acre parcel of public land that will include 5.5 acres developed as an urban farm. On Saturday, October 3, at 10:30 a.m., the Frogtown Farm officially opens.
“Our grand opening signifies a herculean effort by community members,” says Eartha Borer Bell, executive director, Frogtown Farm, St. Paul. “I’ve been involved with the project for a year now as paid, full time staff, and it’s constantly humbling how much time and effort, heart and soul, for over almost a decade, the community has put into the project. Our opening is a mark of what can be done when people get together, have a vision and see it through.”

Frogtown Farm is the vision of longtime Frogtown residents Seitu Jones, Soyini Guyton, Patricia Ohmans and Anthony Schmitz. “They saw a great opportunity to increase access to greenspace in the Frogtown neighborhood,” Bell says. After the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation built its main campus on the land, then put the buildings up for sale in 2008, the property was vacant. The visionaries approached the Trust for Public Land to help them raise funds to purchase the site.
In 2012, the Trust, a national nonprofit organization that conserves land for parks, gardens and other natural places, struck a deal to buy the land for $2.2 million from the  Wilder Foundation. In 2013, Frogtown Farm invited the community to help design the site. “We developed a number of community engagement initiatives around what the park and farm would look like,” Bell says. “Over a six-to-eight month process, hundreds of community members became involved. Their input resulted in the design.”
Later that year, the City of St. Paul began discussions with Frogtown Farm about owning the property, in order to keep it accessible to the public. At the end of 2013, the land was later transferred to the City of St. Paul. In addition to the farm, the site includes play areas and maintains a historic oak grove.
“Urban agriculture is really booming in the Twin Cities,” Bell says. “While Frogtown isn’t necessarily a food desert, our community does experience barriers to accessing fresh local food. The farm will help remedy that situation.” The farm will also bring the neighborhood’s various populations together, to grow, prepare and share the food grown on the farm, she adds.
“There are plenty of anecdotes, and there’s lots of information, on how Frogtown is a diverse neighborhood,” Bell explains. “But we keep hearing that there isn’t a lot of interaction between those diverse populations. We do know that people like growing and cultivating a garden or farm, and cooking and preserving food.”
“So our five-year plan includes construction of a building that would serve as an incubator for fledgling food businesses in the community, an education center with cooking classes, and a community center,” Bell adds. “We hope that will provide great opportunities for people of all ages to share food traditions from their diverse cultures.”
The grand opening on October 3 will include a land blessing ceremony (10:30 a.m.), program (11 a.m.), and “Taste of Frogtown” event with tours and activities (noon to 2 p.m.).

Little Mekong Night Market moves and expands in August

Last summer, the Little Mekong Night Market, a project of the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA) in St. Paul, debuted, introducing the Twin Cities to the vibrancy of the markets that are a common occurrence across Asia. “There’s a unique vibe and energy that happens when people are hanging out at night, in the summer, at a festive event that’s intergenerational and family friendly,” says artist organizer Oskar Ly, who helped coordinate last year’s night markets.
In fact, MSP’s first night market, Ly recalls, was such a hit that “people kept coming back with their families and friends to check out all the night markets in Little Mekong. People have said they felt as though they were transported into a different country for the evening.”
This year, the Little Mekong Night Market will be held Friday, August 7, from 6 p.m. to midnight, and Saturday, August 8, from 4 p.m. to midnight. The location, however, has changed. “We’re moving the night market from the parking lot behind Mai Village to the street, and closing off Western Avenue from Charles to Aurora,” says Jeffrey Whitman, event manager, Little Mekong Night Market, AEDA.
“We’re also moving the main stage across the street into a parking lot, so we have more space to spread out,” he adds. “Last year, we were really tucked into a nook. Surveys showed that people needed more room, and also wanted to have greater exposure and catch more passersby off the Green Line. We listened.”
This year’s vendors will include Dangerous Productions (a nonprofit performing arts group), the fashion truck Style A Go-Go, novelty accessories by Designs by RedFireFly, Luce Quilts, Nuclear Nectar’s hot sauces, Pho-Ger’s kimchee fries, Lilly Bean Ice Desserts, LolaRosa's Filipino-inspired food, RedGreen Rivers’ traditional Hmong fair trade crafts, and Silhouette Bakery’s sweet and savory Japanese buns.
Also, Ly says, “We’re expanding the diversity of arts that will be showcased. We have 100 groups of artists, art activities, and traditional and contemporary performances planned.”

Performances by Mayda, Str8 2th, Hmong Breakers Leadership Council, Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli, Capoeira Fitness Academy,
Hmong Cultural Center Qeej Troupe, Xibaba Brazilian and World Jazz are scheduled. The arts activities will be spearheaded by Humans of Night Market by Hmongkee Business, Greetings from Night Market by Hmongkee Business, SparkIt,
Chicks on Sticks, Hoop Jams and other groups.

The Little Mekong Night Market was started last year as part of AEDA’s mission to help small and micro-businesses take off and flourish. “The night market is really about buying local, from people who live in the neighborhood,” Whitman says. “Some of the vendors come from outside the community, but the majority of them live and work right here. The market supports the neighborhood and brings in people to see what Little Mekong has to offer.”
In addition to functioning as an economic development initiative, Ly adds that the market is also a “placemaking effort for Little Mekong. It’s part of our rebranding of the district, in order to further revitalize the area, bring in new visitors, and entice people to come back—again and again.”

St. Paul Bicycle Plan widens its scope

The City of St. Paul recently revealed the latest draft of the comprehensive St. Paul Bicycle Plan, which proposes adding more than 200 miles of bikeways to the city. Incorporating public input on a previous draft of the plan, the latest manifestation takes a wider look at bicycling in the city. The plan now addresses bicycle parking, traffic signals, bicycle counting programs and other topics.
“This is a very significant effort,” says Reuben Collins, transportation planner and engineer, St. Paul Department of Public Works. “This is the first time the city has had a stand-alone vision for bicycling across all the city departments and the first time that we’ve really looked at the neighborhood level to ask what are the bicycle connections.”
St. Paul residents voiced feedback on the plan at a series of open house events and through Open St. Paul, as well as in personal emails and letters. Much of the community input called for addressing questions around wayfinding, trail lighting and zoning codes that would require bike parking in new developments, and encourage the incorporation of locker rooms and shower facilities to better accommodate bike commuters. The plan was revised to include much of that community feedback, according to Collins.
In development since 2011, the plan’s major aim is to complete the Grand Round trail system originally envisioned in the late-1880s as a figure-eight loop encircling both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The plan would also add a 1.7-mile loop in downtown St. Paul, which has been a notable void in the city’s bicycling infrastructure.
There is currently a recognizable disparity in the geographical layout of bikeways throughout the city, as well. While bicycling facilities are relatively abundant in the western half of the city, historically, there has not been equal investment in bicycling infrastructure on the East Side of St. Paul, according to Collins.
“I think there are a lot of reasons for that (disparity), but it’s something we are very aware of and looking to change,” he says. “We are looking to address that and reach some sort of geographical equity throughout the city.”
While city-specific numbers are hard to come by—something the plan seeks to address with bike counting protocol and programs—regional studies show a steady incline in the number of people riding bikes throughout the Twin Cities.
Bicycling rates increased 78 percent in the metro area from 2007 to 2013, according to a report from Bike Walk Twin Cities, a program of Transit for Livable Communities.
While Minneapolis is consistently ranked amongst the top bicycling cities in the country, St. Paul has struggled to keep up with its bike-friendly sibling to the West. “Certainly we can say anecdotally we know there are a lot more people riding bicycles [in St. Paul],” Collins says.
The St. Paul Bicycle Plan looks to solidify that growth in ridership by cementing an official citywide vision for bicycling. Planners hope to have the plan incorporated into the St. Paul Comprehensive Plan; one of the plan’s goals is St. Paul becoming a world-class bicycling city.
Sources of funding for the long-range plan will be “many and various,” Collins says. One significant potential source is the 8-80 Vitality Fund proposed by Mayor Chris Coleman. In his budget address this summer, Coleman earmarked $17.5 million to rebuild “key portions of our streets,” including completing Phase One of the downtown bike loop as laid out in the Bicycle Plan. He dedicated another $13.2 million towards completion of the Grand Rounds.
“It will be a very sizable investment to really get the ball rolling to implement the recommendations in the plan,” Collins said of the Mayor’s funding priorities with the 8-80 Vitality Fund.
The plan will next go before the Saint Paul Planning Commission October 17 where another public hearing will likely be set. After that, it goes back to the transportation committee, back to the Planning Commission, then on to the City Council for a final vote and hopefully adoption. Collins says the earliest he expects the plan to be put up for a vote is February of 2015.

CREATE: The artful meal and "food system intervention"

On September 14, 2,000 people will join artists and food activists at a half-mile long table down the center of Victoria Street in St. Paul as part of “CREATE: The Community Meal”—a public art project headed by artist Seitu Jones. Designed as a creative “food system intervention,” the project aims to lower barriers to healthy food access in some of city’s most densely populated and culturally diverse communities.
While a lot of work is being done in cities to address issues surrounding healthy food access, CREATE is taking a new approach. “We’re making this an artistic experience from the minute 2,000 people walk through the gate,” says Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art Saint Paul, which is orchestrating the project.
Everything will have an artistic touch, from the movements of the servers and hosts, which will be choreographed by Ananya Dance Theatre, to the blessing by poet G.E Patterson, right down to the 2,000 placemats handcrafted by paper artist Mary Hark using only bio-matter collected from the yards, alleyways and parks of the Frogtown neighborhood.
Spoken word artists including TouSaiko Lee, Deeq Abdi, Laureine Chang, Nimo Farah and Rodrigo Sanchez will perform original pieces with youth from Frogtown and Cedar-Riverside. Their work will investigate food traditions of the various cultures that make up the community.
Artists Emily Stover and Asa Hoyt are fabricating several Mobile ArtKitchens to demonstrate healthy food preparation around the city. They will be hosted by youth from the Kitty Andersen Science Center at the Science Museum of Minnesota and Youth Farm.
Chef James Baker, of Elite Catering Company and the Sunny Side Café—regularly voted best soul food restaurant in the Twin Cities —will prepare the meal with local ingredients grown specifically for the event by area farmers.
Guests will be presented with a healthy, locally sourced spread that includes 500 free-range chickens from a farm in Northfield, several vegetable dishes like collard greens and salad, an Ethiopian Bean dish from Flamingo Ethiopian Restaurant’s menu, corn bread and more.
Many of the growers, including those from Minneapolis-based Stones Throw Urban Farm and the Hmong American Farmers Association, are based in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods. The Minnesota Food Association is overseeing all the food production and sourcing.
“This is an opportunity for folks to meet their farmers,” Jones says. “Most of the funds are going into the pockets of farmers and artists. So this is an effort also to really pay attention to the local economy.”
Jones was inspired to put on this massive community meal while sitting in his storefront studio in Frogtown. He noticed an endless parade of people walking to the local convenience store and returning with bags of groceries. “Many times those bags would be filled not with fruits or vegetable, but with pre-packaged food,” he says.
Along with a group of local food activists, he received a grant from the USDA to do a food assessment of Districts 4, 5, 7 and 8 in St. Paul. He expected many of the obstacles the group found preventing residents from making healthy food choices, such as cost and convenience. One finding came as a surprise though.
“People don’t know how to make a healthy meal,” Jones says. “While we intuitively know what a healthy meal is, there are some folks that have lost the ability to prepare [one]…it wasn’t passed on.”
Jones began hosting small healthy community meals in residents’ homes, backyards and driveways more than a year ago, collecting “food stories” along the way. One story, told by Va-Megn Thoj, of the Asian Economic Development Association, chronicles his family’s journey across the Mekong River while fleeing oppression in Laos.
On arriving at a refugee camp in Thailand, he encountered a bright red fruit he had never seen before at a vendor’s stand. The vendor cut him off a chunk to try. The tart sweetness of every apple he has eaten since brings him back to that day, he says.
“We all have these food stories, and these stories are written in fats, carbohydrates and nutrients,” Jones says. “These stories go back for generations.”
Podas-Larson says Public Art St. Paul is also helping create community meal kits to help communities around the country host their own healthy meal events. Visit the CREATE website to donate, learn more, read more food stories and sign up to host your own table at the community meal.
“Food is so universal. Food is something that we all share, and most importantly…food defines us,” Jones says. “In many cultures, the way it’s prepared can be this act of love, and that’s what the community meal is. It is an act of love.”

C4ward opens doors to cultural districts along Green Line

The Green Line light-rail line opens doors to a number of emerging cultural districts along University Avenue in the Central Corridor. Throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall, C4ward: Arts and Culture Along the Green Line is inviting Twin Cities’ residents to explore six of these districts through a series of free arts-centered events occurring every other Saturday. The next event is Saturday August 9 in the Rondo and Victoria neighborhoods off the Victoria Station.

The series of events kicked off July 26 in the Little Mekong District during one of the five Southeast Asian Night Markets planned this summer. Other districts on the C4ward docket, in addition to Rondo/Frogtown, are Little Africa, Creative Enterprise Zone, Prospect Park and West Bank.

For years, University Avenue existed mainly as a thoroughfare—a place to be traveled through on the way to someplace else. The array of new cultural districts popping up is evidence that that area’s identity is already changing, says Kathy Mouacheupao, Cultural Corridor coordinator with the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which is organizing C4ward in partnership with leaders from each of the cultural districts.

“When you’re driving down University, people usually have their destination planned already—you really miss a lot of the richness, a lot of the cultural identities, the really cool things that are happening along the corridor,” she says.

Whether it’s the abundant entrepreneurs, artists and unique shopping in the Creative Enterprise Zone near the Raymond Ave. Station, or the string of African-owned businesses a short jaunt off the Snelling Ave. stop, C4ward is looking to draw new visitors to burgeoning points of cultural and artistic vibrancy that might have been previously overlooked.

“We’re trying to groove new patterns,” Mouacheupao says. “One of the nice things about the Green Line light rail is that people are starting to notice things they didn’t notice before when they were driving.”

The rich arts and creative communities that quietly thrive along the Central Corridor will be on full display at the C4ward events. From do-it-yourself letterpress printing to illuminated mask making, Mouacheupao says the artists involved are dedicated to engaging and building community. “We all live and breathe art,” she says. Art is one way in which “we communicate with each other.”


Field guide explores Green Line's natural history

Hidden in the urban jungle of concrete and steel is a whole natural world waiting to be rediscovered and explored, says local artist and botanist Sarah Nassif. The new Green Line light-rail stations, she adds, are a great place to start.

Nassif’s new project, The Other Green Line, supported by Irrigate Arts, asks participants to start thinking of Green Line stations as not only jumping off points to previously unexplored businesses and restaurants, but also as trailheads leading to underappreciated natural beauty and history.

“The more you look, the more you see, and it happens really fast,” Nassif says of taking time to notice the natural world along the Central Corridor.

The Other Green Line is a field guide for amateur urban naturalists. Nassif organized the book into eight, themed nature “forays” along the Green Line.

One follows the path of a wayward black bear that took itself on a walk through the Frogtown neighborhood in 2012. Another explores the Kasota Wetlands near the Raymond Station, which are a remnant of a 1,000-acre backwater once fed by the free-flowing Mississippi.

The forays take participants through several different biomes—less identifiable today than they were 100 years ago. Lowertown was once dense forest, for instance. The area around the Victoria Station used to be prairie.

Tower Hill in Prospect Park is one of many glacial hills that once dotted the Minneapolis landscape before most were mined for gravel. Tower Hill still stands because neighbors bought the site and turned it into a park to keep it from being mined.

Tower Hill, Nassif says, “speaks volumes [about] how much the landscape changes because we’re here, and how people coming together and being aware together about nature can have a powerful effect on what’s here for future generations.”

In addition to the eight self-guided forays in the book, Nassif is leading a series of three tours. The first began at Bedlam Theater last Saturday and explored the white sandstone cliffs along the Mississippi River once used as natural refrigeration for kegs of beer, as well as pirate safe keeps and hideouts. Tour goers also noticed stones mined from area quarries and used in the Endicott Building at 141 E. 4th Street.

“It’s just interesting to stand there and realize you’re standing on what used be an ocean, that’s why the sandstone exists—it used to be the bottom of a sea,” Nassif says.

Also in the field guide are lists of area businesses for excursion supplies, and suggestions for where to cozy up to a beer and a meal when you’re finished. “There are tons of new places to explore both in the landscape and in the humanscape,” Nassif says.

Nassif’s field guide contains blank pages to draw and record what you find. You can also share your findings, sketches and stories on The Other Green Line website, where there is a list of area businesses carrying the book and information on upcoming guided tours.


Artspace Jackson Flats opens to families in Northeast Mpls

Last weekend, with the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District abuzz with Art-A-Whirl—the largest annual open-studio art tour in the country—the scene was set for the grand opening of Artspace Jackson Flats. The $10 million, 35-unit, live-work artist apartments in Northeast are the first affordable artist housing project in the city from the Minneapolis-based national nonprofit, Artspace.
With a large lawn and playset on the property, which is located in the Logan Park neighborhood, Artspace is billing the new property as family-friendly—something president Kelley Lindquist says is something of a rarity in the city.
“It’s a little more challenging for young parents to have kids in intense downtown projects…it’s just much easier when the residence is neighborhood-based,” Lindquist says.
Children can often lend to the creative and collaborative environment Artspace seeks to foster. Kids are often the first to break down communication walls, running through the halls and forming relationships with other children in the building.
“Eventually the parents start hanging out and start sharing their different artistic skills and coming up with new creative projects—and they may never have done so without their children paving the way,” Lindquist says.
Other Artspace projects like the Frogtown Family Lofts in St. Paul—the organization’s second project ever, completed in 1991—are also good examples of children spurring collaboration in creative environments.
Artist and Jackson Flats resident April Barnhart, who launched her Aprilierre jewelry line in 2009, says she is already benefitting from the artist community developing in and beyond the building.
“It’s really not an easy decision when you decide to commit your life to the arts,” she says.  “Having the right resources and the right workspace are important to cultivate creativity.”
Being in close proximity to other creative people has advantages as well. Barnhart experienced these benefits first hand when she ran into a neighbor in the building who heard she was a jeweler. He happened to have a set of glass display cases he no long needed and thought she could put them to good use.
“They were exactly what I’ve been looking for in antique stores for years,” she said.
As much as Jackson Flats was built for artists, it was also a product of the artist community to begin with. When former Northeast Community Investment Cooperative Executive Director John Vaughn sat down with the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association in 2004, the organization’s goals were specific: First, to create and arts district, and second, was to build artist housing.
“We took that heart and that became our mission,” Vaughn says. He brought in architects from UrbanWorks Architecture to a neighborhood meeting where he talked with artists and residents of the area about what they wanted from the building that would become Jackson Flats.
As residents threw out ideas, the architect drew them into a design. At the end of the hour-long meeting, the sketch had taken shape. “This building very much looks like it was originally envisioned,” Vaughn said. “It comes very much out of the arts community and out of this community here.
The opening of Jackson Flats was part of Artspace’s “Breaking Ground” celebration, which began with a creative placemaking symposium featuring grantees from the St. Paul Companies Leadership Initiatives in Neighborhoods program at the new multi-family residence.

The celebration concluded Monday at an event at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts (another Artspace project) during which Artspace presented numerous awards. The awardees included Catherine Jordon of Minneapolis, recipient of the Paul Brawner Award for Support of the Arts.

Cycles for Change bikes into underserved neighborhoods

The bicycling renaissance in the Twin Cities is in high gear. Minneapolis and St. Paul are both working to expand already respectable bicycling infrastructures, and more residents than ever, from all walks of life, are getting around town on two wheels. But, as Jason Tanzman of Cycles for Change in St. Paul is quick to point out, “the reality is the bike movement is a white movement.”

That’s something Cycles for Change, a nonprofit community bike shop bordering the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods, is looking to change.

“Our vision is to build a diverse and empowered community of bicyclists,” says Tanzman, the director of development and outreach for the organization.

In addition to a full service retail and mechanic shop, Cycles for Change offers a host of programming designed to build a resilient and diverse community around bicycling—and it is quickly gathering momentum.

In 2013, the organization lent out 290 bikes from their Bike Library by partnering with community and civic organizations from around the metro to pair eager riders from low-income areas with new sets of wheels for 6-month leases. Riders in the Bike Library program also get a complimentary helmet and lock, and training to be confident and safe on the roads.

The Build a Bike Class brought in 120 area youth who constructed their own bikes from the ground up, learned how to maintain their bikes and mastered the rules of the road before riding out the door, according to Tanzman. Cycles for change also mentored 12 youth apprentices last year—many of them now help design and run the organization’s programs and retail shop.

Many of the people joining Cycles for Change represent populations Tanzman says are not adequately represented in the bicycling movement. The fastest growing groups of bicyclists nationwide are people of color, according to a report by the League of American Bicyclists.

From 2001 to 2009, the percent of all trips that are by bike in the African-American population grew by 100 percent. Trips by Asians-Americans grew by 80 percent and Hispanics took 50 percent more trips by bike during that period, while whites saw a 22 percent increase, according to the equity report.

When it comes to making decisions about where new bike lanes will go or advocating for how new bike trails are designed, people of color and people of low socioeconomic status aren’t adequately represented at the table, Tanzman says.

“No matter how many people of different racial groups ride bikes, there is an underrepresentation of people from low-income communities and people of color in the decision-making bodies,” Tanzman said.

In many ways, these are groups that would particularly benefit from improved bicycling infrastructure. “A bike is a way to save money,” he says. “A bike is a way to live a healthy life.

According to Tanzman, 25 percent of the households in the Cycles for Change neighborhood don’t have access to a car. “Then of those other 75 percent that do, they might have one car in the household, and maybe it’s not that reliable, maybe it costs a lot of money to gas it up every week,” he says.

“There are so many natural opportunities to build alliances and really make the bicycling movement a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement that it’s not right now.”

Cycles for Change is hosting a Spring Celebration Monday May 19 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 pm at the shop, 712 University Avenue East.

Night market debuts June 14 in St. Paul's Little Mekong

The vibrant blend of sights, smells, sounds, and people milling together at Southeast Asian night markets can be a vivid sensory and cultural experience. This summer, the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA) is bringing a slice of that life to the Twin Cities.

Throughout the summer, AEDA will hold five outdoor night markets in the Little Mekong business and cultural district of Saint Paul, between the Mai Village and Little Szechuan restaurants on the 300 block of University Avenue. The first market will be held June 14, the same day the Green Line’s light-rail service begins.

The Little Mekong district is home to a high concentration of Asian residents and businesses. Of the almost 80 establishments on the five-block stretch of University between Mackubin and Marion streets, about 75 percent are Asian-owned according to a 2013 AEDA study documenting the impact of Central Corridor Light Rail Transit on the area.

Many of these small businesses were hit hard by light-rail construction over the last several years, according Theresa Swaney, AEDA’s communications coordinator. AEDA hopes to bring needed visibility, and customers, to businesses still reeling from the disruption. Swaney also hopes the night markets will help breathe new life into the area as a nighttime destination. “It’s sort of shifting the idea of what’s acceptable, and possible, at night,” she says.

Like farmers markets, the Little Mekong night markets will host local farmers selling fresh produce, but also up to 30 different vendors selling specialty food, art, and crafts. “It’s sort of this mix between a festival and a farmers market,” says Swaney. “It’s going to be a little more entertaining and a little more exciting than just getting your vegetables.” Artist organizer Oskar Ly is planning live performances, art, and activities as part of the market.

Organizers are currently looking for businesses and vendors located from throughout the Twin Cities to participate. Unlike many markets, applicants don’t have to be established. “We’re pushing toward new vendors,” Swaney says. “We want these people to have an opportunity to sell their stuff, and if they do well, maybe draw them into opening a brick-and-mortar business in the district or along University.”

AEDA also hopes the night markets will help lay ground for a new public plaza and community gathering space at the site. A rundown building used mostly for storage currently sits in the middle of the plot. The organization recently held a series of workshops and community meetings to gather input on redeveloping the site.

Source: Theresa Swaney
Writer: Kyle Mianulli

Victoria Theater to become a cultural center, once again

Several years ago, Saint Paul’s historic Victoria Theater was nearly demolished. Now, after sitting vacant for 14 years, the place is getting a new lease on life. The Twin Cities Community Land Bank is closing on the purchase of the theater, according to Tyler Olson, the project coordinator. Olson is working with the volunteer-driven Victoria Theater Arts Initiative (VTAI), which will take over the building’s ownership in the future. 

Basically, the land bank is “holding” the property for the group. “The fear was that we would do the work upfront and the owner [of the theater] would get an offer that couldn’t be refused” from someone else, Olson says. 

A kickoff event, which includes building tours, begins at 2:30 p.m., Thursday, January 16.

VTAI, which began meeting a year ago, is comprised of representatives from various local organizations including the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, Historic Saint Paul, Dangerous Productions, and the New Victoria Theater Project. “We started saying, ‘Let’s make something happen here. It feels like now is the time, especially with the light rail coming,’” he says.   

That kind of grassroots effort is typical in Frogtown, where a "trend of organic growth" has taken hold, he says, citing the development of the nearby Frogtown Farms. 

Together, the consortium “intends to revitalize the building, transforming it into a community-owned and -managed center for arts engagement, education and performance,” a prepared statement reads. Irrigate, Springboard for the Arts, and the City of Saint Paul helped to make the project happen.   

What are the next steps? As it is, the building is a shell that needs to be renovated. “We really need to figure out all of the things that need to happen to make it workable and usable,” he says. The group is also “getting out into the community,” to find out what people are interested in seeing happen at the theater, he says. “People are excited about its potential.”
The theater will be “a huge boon to the community, a landmark destination,” he says. “The hope is that people will come to see something here they wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else in the Twin Cities."  

Source: Tyler Olsen, project coordinator, Victoria Theater Arts Initiative 
Writer: Anna Pratt 

Frogtown Farm invites community to help with its design

Community members can get involved in the design process for the Frogtown Farm and Park at a workshop on Oct. 12 from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Rondo Library

The 13-acre park in the works for St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood includes a recreation area, a nature preserve, and a demonstration farm. 

The upcoming workshop deals specifically with the design of the park's farm portion, which will take up nearly half of the site. Over the summer, the park pulled in the San Francisco-based Rebar Art and Design Studio to lead the farm's design process. 

The interdisciplinary agency, which works with numerous Twin Cities-based experts, was a good fit for the project because much of its work lies “at the intersection of art, design and ecology,” farm materials state. That includes experience with community farms and gardens.  
Betsy Schaefer Roob, a spokesperson for Frogtown Farm and Park, says next week's workshop will give community members a chance to share ideas and hear about the possibilities for the farm. That feedback will continue to drive several related meetings in the coming months. The idea is “to gather input and eventually responses to different concept designs,” she says, adding that the goal is to have a final design by early 2014.

Community members will consider how to facilitate programs at the farm centering on food production, education, and gardening, she says.  

After the design process wraps up, infrastructure will go in, while cover crops will be planted in 2014, she says. The farm will be up and running the following year.

The surrounding park is undergoing a separate community process. 

The idea for Frogtown Farm came from a handful of longtime neighborhood residents, and community involvement is something the farm aims to continue every step of the way. “Community is really the core of who we are and what we value,” Roob says.  

She hopes the result will be a “community place, a place to gather, to learn, to work, to play, and to share knowledge and, of course, food,” she says. “We really need the wisdom and diverse perspectives of the Frogtown community to build that place.”  

Source: Betsy Schaefer Roob, Frogtown Farm and Park 
Writer: Anna Pratt 

St. Paul parks enter into development plan with Frogtown Gardens and Farms

In April, the St. Paul City Council gave the go-ahead to the parks department to enter into a development agreement with Frogtown Gardens.

The agreement lays out the next steps to make the five-acre urban agriculture demonstration site a reality. Frogtown Gardens “will encourage residents to start their own backyard gardens and will promote healthier eating habits,” a prepared statement reads.

The land for the garden once belonged to the Wilder Foundation, which has since moved its offices. St. Paul is working with the Trust for Public Land to acquire the property this year, according to St. Paul information. In the meantime, the trust is trying to raise the $3.45 million needed to buy the land and to jumpstart development and programming.

Mike Hahm, who leads the parks department, says the development agreement with Frogtown Gardens helps flesh out those details. “It’s the next important step to bring this thing to life,” he says. Frogtown Gardens speaks directly to a need for parkland in the neighborhood, a need that the parks department identified a while ago.

As a part of the project, more than half of the property will become public parkland. “We’re super excited about the project. It hits on so many priority issues for Frogtown and St. Paul as a community,” Hahm says. It goes without saying, he adds, that parkland “is important for the community for so many reasons.” Parkland contributes to sustainability and livability, both of which are big goals for the city, he says.

Another part of the acreage will be used for growing fruits and vegetables. “The city is facilitating the partnership between the Frogtown Gardens group and the public, which will own the land,” he says.

Frogtown Gardens is an example of a community-driven effort. “It was the community that raised its hand repeatedly and said it had a vision for this property as a park and an urban agricultural center,” Hahm says, adding, “It caught the attention of various officials and captured the imagination of others in the community.”

Source: Mike Hahm, director, St. Paul Parks
Writer: Anna Pratt

With $3,000 in startup funds, Our Village Gardens helps transform a former brownfield site

This spring, Frogtown Gardens got to work on a new community garden at a former brownfield site in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

It took $3,000 to set up the 30-plot community garden, called Our Village Gardens, according to Patricia Ohmans, who is a spokesperson for Frogtown Gardens.  

Frogtown Gardens is a nonprofit organization that’s in the process of establishing a demonstration farm park and sanctuary in the neighborhood.

Financial support for the water, materials, compost, and mulch at Our Village Gardens came from Terry and Margie Commerford, who own the land, she explains. The couple runs the River of Goods home decor shop and Terrybear Urns and Memorials out of a new development on the site.

A combination of neighborhood volunteers and employees of the Commerfords’ businesses cultivate the plots, she says.   

The gardeners are a diverse group, including Hmong, Somalis, Latinos, Vietnamese, African Americans, European Americans and others. “There's lots of energy and cross-pollination among them,” Ohmans says.

“We still need to do a lot of beautification around the communal spaces of the garden,” including the butterfly garden, rose border, and raspberries, “but the garden is already a great success and a truly diverse stomping ground.”  

Frogtown Gardens also sponsors Amir's Garden, a permaculture demonstration garden on a vacant, privately owned lot, along with the Pop-Up Tree Park, which is a temporary tree nursery on a city-owned lot in the neighborhood.

Amir's Garden's excess produce will go to the local food shelf, according to Ohmans.

“We are also closely tracking the production of that garden, to get a sense of how much food can actually be grown on a household lot,” she adds.

Source: Patricia Ohmans, Frogtown Farms
Writer: Anna Pratt

Little Mekong brand helps draw people to the Central Corridor

In recognition of the unique Asian businesses and other cultural institutions along University Avenue in St. Paul from Galtier to Mackubin streets, the area is being branded as Little Mekong.

It’s an initiative that the local Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA) launched on Feb. 25.

The name references the Mekong River, which is a major river in Southeast Asia, according to Va-Megn Thoj, who heads the AEDA. “Most businesses in the area have a connection to the river,” he explains.

In his view, “By giving a name to a destination which has existed for a long time, we can draw more people into the area.” This is especially needed during Central Corridor light rail construction, he says.  

Already, as a result of construction obstacles, many of the businesses are seeing less foot traffic, he says.

With the Little Mekong branding, “We want to build on what we have,” which he describes as “an attractive destination for people to get introduced to Asian cultures and cuisine.” Although the district has been around informally for a long time, not too many people are familiar with it, he says.

Besides improving the streetscape and putting up district-related signage, Little Mekong will host a number of events, including family-friendly festivals.

AEDA is also working with businesses to create incentive programs to bring in more customers, including coupons and other deals, and to handle increased traffic. “We’re working with businesses to strengthen their operations and customer service,” he says.

The coming Central Corridor represents “a tremendous opportunity to create something of benefit to the neighborhoods and city and region," he adds.

Source: Va-Megn Thoj
Writer: Anna Pratt

Little free libraries come to St. Paul

After reading about the idea, St. Paul-ite Paul Rogne was inspired to build a little free library in his yard.

The lending libraries, which resemble a cross between a mailbox and a birdhouse, offer books for passersby to exchange.

All over the globe, the Little Free Library movement, which started off as a two-person project, is taking off.

When they introduced the first little free library a couple of years ago, the movement’s originators, Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, who are based in Madison, Wis., probably had no idea it would spread as it has.

It turned out to be a relatively easy, grassroots way to encourage reading and community. Today, they have a goal of establishing at least 2,510 little free library boxes worldwide. To register or find the lending libraries, people can search a map on their website. 

In St. Paul, Rogne put the finishing touches on the literary lawn ornament this week.
The little free libraries have a slogan, “Take a book, leave a book,” which appealed to Rogne, and his wife, Barb, both of whom are avid readers.  

“We love to share good books,” he says via email, adding, “Used bookstores pay so little that we would rather just give them away to others who want to read them.”

The little free library is also a fun way to connect with neighbors, he says. Plus, his neighborhood gets plenty of foot traffic. A couple others are close to his house, too. “We think having this little library along our sidewalk will get good use.”

Also nearby, a group of students and educators constructed a number of the little free libraries in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood as a part of the 23rd annual National Service-Learning Conference and youthrive PeaceJam Leadership Conference that took place on April 14, according to a recent Pioneer Press story.

The libraries that they decorated have been planted in the neighborhood's various community garden spaces.

“Maybe this will catch on and spread,” Rogne says. “Wouldn’t that be terrific?"

Source: Paul Rogne
Writer: Anna Pratt
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