May 24, 2014
17.9 miles Macalester-Groveland, Lexington-Hamline, Frogtown, North End
I spent much of the first portion of this ride in Frogtown and on Charles Avenue specifically. (It was named for Charles Rodney Rice, a merchant and brother of developer Edmund Rice.)(1) You’ll find details of that part of the ride in “Charles, Churches and Culture-part 1.”
In part 2 of “C, C and C,” I moved on to the North End, to one of Saint Paul’s cultural treasures, the Hmongtown Market. Located on the grounds and in the buildings of an old lumber yard, a visit to the Market is as close to experiencing Southeast Asia as you can get without going there.
“When you’re here it’s kinda like you’re in Thailand. Even when you order food sometimes you might have to point because there’s a language barrier. But people all understand pointing and you know how many finger you hold up is how much it costs,” according to Jamie Liu, manager of the Hmongtown Market.
The delectable assortment of Asian foods sold at 11 food booths is great motivation for a getaway to the Market. Of course there are egg rolls and a marvelous assortment of traditional Hmong dishes such as pig ears, chicken larb, sweet pork soup, sesame seed balls, a sweet, deep-fried pastry, and specially seasoned pork ribs.
“Bring some friends and then order something that you might not have tried by yourself-a small portion of it. You might like it.” Jamie Liu<
About 130 vendors lease spots within the Market buildings and another 80 or 90 occupy the outdoor stalls from April through October. Many of the goods, including colorful fabrics, are imported from Southeast Asia. Several merchants sell shoes and traditional clothing, “A lot of the Hmong clothes that you see, they’re hand stitched and they’re made throughout the course of a year,” said Jamie. “People wear Hmong clothes usually for traditional gatherings like whether it is funerals, weddings or New Year’s. And each one is tailor-made here.”
Several dozen merchants sell fresh produce and plants. Eighteen year old Luke Yang, a high school senior, is one of them. When I asked him about his plants, he politely explained that they’re herbs, “People just say it’s plants but actually, in our tradition, the Hmong tradition, it’s herbs that’s really important.”
That’s because, said Luke, herbs are medicinal, “Say you have the stomach flu, we don’t go to stores to buy medicine, we just come straight here or ask our elders about it and they said this (herb) works for this. Sometimes they say you chew the leaves and then drink water after or sometimes you microwave water, then put the leaves in it, then drink it.”
Unlike many Hmong his age, Luke has learned about his culture by working since he was 9 years old in the family garden plots and at the Market, “There’s a lot to the Hmong traditional culture. I’m the oldest in my family but one of the youngest to know a lot about my own tradition. Mostly, all of our young generation, they don’t really know it…”
Luke told me his Grandmother and parents work very hard cultivating and harvesting the herbs and vegetables and at the Market to support the family, “So I respect my grandma for that. I respect my parents for that. In return what I can do is help out and do them a favor and just be here when they need it or when they’re not here.”
Jamie said he’s adding services to the mix of vendors, “We have a lawyer here. We also have insurance agents. We’re moving a little toward the direction of healthcare too now so we have a medical equipment provider. I’m also working on getting a pharmacy here.”
Jamie is debating other changes to Hmongtown Market, “We need AC, we need, maybe LED lighting. There’s a challenge there because in Thailand you have chicken wire and everything like that for store booths. And over here, if you go to a mall, they have drywall, they have glass, neon lights. That’s the challenge for me, when I improve the property I need to find a fine balance between authenticity and modernizing it.”
“A lot of times you can bargain here; negotiate for a price of an item. A lot of people don’t know that…” Jamie Liu
Interestingly, Jamie, who is of Chinese ancestry, didn’t know much about the Hmong until moving to North Dakota for college, “Seven years ago I didn’t know what Hmong was. I really didn’t. Then you come in and you dive into the culture and the history and you’re like ‘Wow! This is a really unique group of ethnic people that maybe deserve more attention..”
After gobbling down some egg rolls and wandering among multi-hued booths of the Market, I moved east to Rice Street and north to an industry-lined block of Sycamore Street. By far the most interesting structure is the Quonset Hut home of Rivertown Auto Parts.
The quaint St. Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church at 189 West Atwater Street was built in 1914 to serve the large number of Romanian immigrants who settled in the North End. One hundred years after construction began, the church remains in splendid shape. One inexplicable oddity is the fake clock with painted hands at 4 o’clock, just below the onion skin dome.
The social service non-profit Amherst H. Wilder Foundation has more than 10 buildings scattered around Saint Paul. Wilder assists children, families and older adults move towards greater self-sufficiency.
Three of Wilder’s buildings are in the 900 block of Lafond Avenue in Frogtown. The largest is the Child Development Services building at 911 Lafond, home to a preschool and childcare center. The Center for Social Healing and Wellness assists the local Southeast Asian community’s cultural barriers and needs. Wilder’s Day Treatment program offers mental health services to children aged 6-12 and their families.
Some other buildings on the campus were shut down by Wilder because of the recession. Holcomb House and Spencer House, residential treatment centers for children and teens, were both demolished.
This unmarked structure was Wilder’s O’Shaughnessy Building. Now, several non-profits have offices here. The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), which “serves, supports and advocates for Hmong American farmers and their families” is one of the lessors. http://www.hmongfarmers.com/
Wilder headquarters sat on this same campus from 1969 to 2007. Before that, the House of the Good Shepherd accommodated unwed mothers, prostitutes and other girls society considered irredeemable. The Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd operated the shelter from 1883 and 1967, according to Saint Paul Historical.
Across the parking lot is a vast meadow interspersed with trees along the perimeter. With not more than a minute of internet searching and I discovered plans were approved for this land and much more, 12.7 acres in all, to become an urban farm and park. The City of Saint Paul officially took possession of the property in December 2013, creating the City’s newest park. Plans for the farm-park are wide-ranging, with three fields, demonstration and children’s gardens, orchards and a play field just some of the amenities. For a diagram of the farm and park, click here. http://frogtownfarm.org/plan/
I’ll make another visit to the Frogtown Farm soon to explore the area. To learn more about the Frogtown Farm, visit http://frogtownfarm.org
By this time, I’d been gone more than three hours so I started back home. Then a fire engine came roaring toward me on Lafond, lights flashing, siren screaming and the horn blaring. The rig stopped less than a block from me and the firefighters jumped out, grabbed a hose and moved quickly toward a smoldering pit.
Several blasts of water and the fire was out. I wasn’t close enough to the action to hear what firefighters said to the folks responsible for the blaze but I’m sure they suggested better ways to remove a tree stump.
The map of this 17-plus mile ride is here: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/509247756
(1) “The Street Where You Live: A Guide to the Place Names of St. Paul” by Donald Empson