Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
To catch the eyes of city officials, St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood is launching a small area plan in cartoon form.
Things are changing in Frogtown. A historically working-class neighborhood of single-family homes in St. Paul, Minnesota, the colorfully named enclave just north and west of downtown has welcomed waves of residents since Scandinavian, Polish, German, and Irish immigrants settled on the swampy, frog-friendly land in the second half of the 19th century. More recently, African Americans, Latinos, Somalis, Koreans, Ethiopians, and ethnic Hmong have made the area their home.
But Frogtown is transforming again, with more affluent newcomers moving to the neighborhood, in part due to the arrival in 2014 of a light rail line that connects downtown St. Paul with downtown Minneapolis. And a jolt of economic development activity is also on the way.
Last year, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association voted to refurbish the area’s Victoria Theater, a century-old movie theater-turned-nightclub now in disrepair, and make it into a gallery and performance space. Mayor Chris Coleman, however, chose to funnel funding for the project elsewhere—in particular, for a police shooting range. When a Frogtown resident asked the mayor why, Coleman replied that the theater renovation wasn’t in the neighborhood’s small area plan.
Every 10 years, many city neighborhood associations pen these plans, which outline changes and policies the community would like to see, and submit them to the mayor’s office. Ideally, some of the asks are incorporated into a city’s comprehensive plan and are implemented—but there’s no guarantee. “Often, small area plans are dry documents that few people read, and they end up sitting on a shelf,” said Caty Royce, director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association.
Royce and her colleagues decided to give Frogtown’s small area plan an attention-grabbing reboot: Because they had been working with local artists to do outreach in the community, they came up with the idea of rendering it as a graphic novel.
Mychal Batson, an artist who grew up in Frogtown, spoke with hundreds of residents and wrote and illustrated the comic, dubbed SMAPL! (for small area plan), which will be launched this week to the neighborhood and soon after submitted to the mayor’s office. A significant amount of the plan focuses on mitigating the impacts of the economic changes the area is experiencing.
“We’re seeing the telltale signs of gentrification—a soccer stadium, condos going up at an exponential rate—and people are getting priced out very quickly,” said Batson.
The plan features two main sections: a description of Frogtown and its residents, and the policies residents want implemented. Its eight main characters embody the ideas of affordable housing, land use, transportation, entrepreneurship, education, arts, quality of life, and economic vitality—and also reflect the neighborhood’s diverse demographics. Around 75 percent of Frogtown residents are people of color, and more than 20 percent were born outside of the U.S.
There’s Sayama, for example, an older woman of color who’s concerned with transportation; she wants more bike trails and a cheaper bus option. Another character, Anwar, wants to ensure a good quality of life for Frogtowners. He asks such questions as, “Are the streets well lit at night?” and “Do we have quick and easy snow and trash removal?”
Through the characters, as well as quotes from Frogtown residents, the plan recommends a number of policies that would help preserve and improve the community, such as housing priced for a range of incomes. “Gentrification isn’t going to go away,” said Batson, “so our best bet is to ask for a certain amount of housing that will allow residents to continue to afford to live here.”
Other asks include hiring Frogtowners to work on local projects, such as the revitalization of a bridge; rezoning the area so that more small businesses can be located in the interior of the neighborhood, thus improving walkability; and providing job training, such as for solar panel installation. “We wanted to be as feasible as possible, meaning closely aligned with St. Paul’s existing vision,” said Batson. “But we are pushing the envelope, too.”
Royce and her colleagues have been using the comic and its characters—they made life-size cardboard cutouts of them—at community meetings. “People enjoy it,” she said. “It’s something they can look at and digest in a way that doesn’t force them to read a long, dull document.”
Whether SMAPL! sways the city is yet to be seen. Royce said Frogtown is lucky in that the city planner assigned to the district is sympathetic to the neighborhood’s concerns. “He’s our translator on the inside,” she said. “And our hope is that the strategies detailed in the plan will stick in officials’ minds when it comes time to vote on projects and policy.”