In St. Paul, MN, the Little Mekong Night Market, a summer celebration of arts and entrepreneurship modeled on markets in Asia, has galvanized commerce and culture along University Avenue. LISC's longtime partner, the Asian Economic Development Association, is leading the charge to revitalize the district, where Southeast Asian residents and businesspeople have incorporated a "a Minnesota twist."
This month, we are highlighting LISC's creative placemaking work in locales across the country, funded in large part by a grant from The Kresge Foundation.
It was getting on toward ten o’clock on a balmy Saturday night in Saint Paul, MN, and Nakita Vang and Mayder Lor, emceeing from the stage of the Little Mekong Night Market, turned on the juice. “What is your ethnicity, Nakita?” Lor asked with a little strut and bob. “Hmong!” the black-clad Vang cried jubilantly, thrusting a fist in the air. “I’m Hmong as well!” Lor yodeled back. After a shout-out to fellow Hmong among the people sitting on curbs and standing in the street, Lor sent a love bulletin to humans in general: “Everybody here and everyone around the world is important!”
The festival was on. Middle schoolers chatted excitedly in little clusters. Toddlers were allowed to stay up late to take it all in from their strollers—all the sounds, tastes and sights, including the throngs of people pouring up and down Western Avenue where it crosses University, speaking many tongues, kaleidoscopically multi-racial and multi-generational. Approaching the normally quiet intersection as the University Avenue light rail train drew up to disgorge another stream of passengers into the market, one little girl’s step turned into a prance. “Why’s there so many people?” she asked her father. “Because it’s a beautiful summer night!” he replied.
In fact the whole scene, with more than a hundred vendors offering everything from sticky rice to sand art and performances running the gamut from breakdancing to thunderous Taiko drumming, was the result of careful orchestration by a local nonprofit, the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA). Its goal: to bring some twenty thousand people from near and far to the heart of Little Mekong to experience the district’s singular blend of Southeast Asian cultures “with a Minnesota twist,” as longtime AEDA executive director Va-Megn Thoj put it.
Why, one might ask, is an organization focused on economic opportunity so involved in arts and culture? “It’s a powerful strategy to bring people together,” Thoj explained, “to create community and also to create economic activity that has a real impact on people and businesses.”
This strategy is what animates the fast-developing field known as creative placemaking, and it’s one LISC has embraced as a vital component of revitalization efforts in low-income communities around the country. Since 2014 LISC’s sponsorship has helped AEDA embed creative placemaking in its own work, including by hiring an artist-organizer to coordinate arts and culture initiatives like the annual Night Market, now in its fourth year. Twin Cities LISC program officer Kathy Mouacheupao is a frequent presence in the neighborhood, offering perspective and connecting AEDA with other LISC partners doing similar work in communities along University Avenue.
Key to the Night Market’s success, Mouacheupao observed, is its authenticity. “It doesn’t feel like culture is on display,” she said. “It’s like the neighborhood is really celebrating. And other people are invited into that space to celebrate with them.”
Like the bustling Asian markets that inspired it, the festival is also a robustly commercial activity. This year, for a total of twelve hours over two June nights, dollars changed hands continuously—and each one of those dollars watered the five-block strip of University Avenue hosting the largest concentration of Southeast Asian-owned businesses in Minnesota, watered the surrounding low-income neighborhood made up predominantly of Southeast Asians (Hmong, Vietnamese, and others) and African-Americans, and watered the dreams of participating small entrepreneurs.
Jenny Nyberg’s mom had always practiced the Thai art of fruit and vegetable carving, but it was only two years ago that, returning from a trip back to Thailand, she pulled a small non-perishable sculpture of an orange tree from her suitcase and said to Jenny, “Look what I made!” “Mom has skills. SKILLZ,” Nyberg enthused on the Facebook page for their fledgling company, So Pla Pla. A retiring person, the artist herself prefers to let the work speak; and there it was arrayed before consumers at the Night Market, intricate, lifelike sculptures of potted orchids and roses and $4 soaps hand-carved into lotuses and turtles.
On the other side of University, Tam Ho offered Hong Kong-style egg waffles, a popular street food in Hong Kong that, Ho explained, is now the rage in Toronto, where she lived for a while (originally hailing from Vietnam). Ho works full-time for a loan servicing company; this was the very first at-bat for her new business, My Kitchen Creations. A power failure halted sales for a while, but soon a generator was roaring away and a seductive cakey aroma wafted from Ho’s waffle irons, her young kids busily taking orders from a line of customers.
SOTA Hot & Cold founder Pheng Vang said his plan had been to use the Night Market as “a launching pad” for his new venture, teasing the introduction of its Thai rolled ice cream in a social media campaign that included a SOTA Hot & Cold Snapchat filter and an ice cream giveaway rewarding Instagram likes and tags. People thronged Vang’s market stand, waiting up to an hour to claim a $5 cup of the delicate ice cream scrolls topped with familiarly American confections like S’mores. “I was expecting interest, but I wasn’t expecting that level of interest,” said Vang. “We’re just going to see how long we can ride the ride I guess.” Vang grew up in the area. He plans to open a SOTA storefront on University Avenue this summer.
Night Market veteran RedGreen Rivers reappeared this year with its textiles and jewelry made by girls and women in the Mekong region of Southeast Asia itself. Having seen traditional Hmong patterns severed from their roots and sold as “tribal” accessories in places like Walmart, said Bo Thao-Urabe, she and her two RedGreen Rivers co-founders wanted to change that. Their products tell a story, and proceeds benefit the young artisans. Thao-Urabe, who as a child came to America from Laos by way of a Thai refugee camp, pointed out silk-wrapped bracelets of aluminum salvaged from bombs the United States dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. Their maker is MaiYa Vue of Xiengkhouang Province, one of the most heavily bombarded regions of Laos. Vue’s income has helped her return to high school.
AEDA and its lively Night Market have their genesis in a displacement threat to a Saint Paul community whose history is marked by traumatic displacements, and that came together to assert, not this time.
Much of the area around Little Mekong was once part of the city’s larger Rondo district, a thriving, economically diverse African-American community literally split apart by the 1960s construction of I-94. The highway project joining the Twin Cities’ downtowns erased minority-owned businesses and homes in an act of social destruction so devastating the mayor of Saint Paul called it an “atrocity” and formally apologized on behalf of the city in 2015. Just north of the new highway, University Avenue became severely disinvested—desolate by day, scary at night. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Southeast Asian immigrants arrived to begin buying up the dirt-cheap property and establish small businesses. They were starting their lives anew, refugees fleeing the aftermath of a blistering American war to defeat communism in their homelands.
So in 2006 when the city was finalizing plans to build a new light-rail line along University Avenue connecting, like I-94 before it, the downtowns of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, locals were skeptical. AEDA formed, and along with twenty other groups won a major victory in 2010 when the transit authority agreed to add three stops to the planned line in low-income communities of color, including the station at Western Avenue. Rather than treating the neighborhood like urban flyover country, of scant interest to commuters racing from point A to point B, the Green Line would provide a much-needed transit option for its residents and encourage economic development by making the spot more accessible.
Of course, with development comes the risk that rising rents will push out the very businesses and families that could benefit most from neighborhood growth. It was largely to counter this potential displacement pressure, Thoj said, that in 2012 AEDA established the Little Mekong Business and Cultural Corridor on University Avenue, “branding” the neighborhood with an association to the river that flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and represents one of the world’s richest ecosystems. By 2014, having engaged local artists in smaller creative placemaking projects, AEDA was ready to mount a big event to raise Little Mekong’s profile—the Night Market.
Ericka Trinh is one of many vendors who grew up with Little Mekong. Minnesota born and bred, her most important mentor has been her mother, Anh, who in 1979 left Ho Chi Minh City behind to make a home in this startlingly different place of frozen winters. She went to beauty school, took a job at Montgomery Ward, and in the late ‘80s opened Anh’s Hairstylists on University Avenue. Anh’s unflagging labor and fluency in four languages helped her create an atmosphere in the salon where immigrant women could feel at home. At eight, Ericka swept floors and washed hair. By fifteen she was cutting hair and found a creative outlet in the work. “Deep down,” she said, “I’m an artist.”
When AEDA’s first Night Market rolled around in 2014, Ericka also was baking artfully decorated cakes and cupcakes to sell for special occasions, working out of a friend’s Chinese restaurant in nearby Eagan. To get her name out there, she took a booth at the market. At the 2017 market she could be found selling Japanese water cakes and other goodies as proprietor of Silhouette Bakery & Bistro, the year-old coffee shop she runs in a big corner building on University Avenue she renovated in a chic urban-industrial style. Her mom helped her buy the vacant, foreclosed building—it’s just a few lots down from the salon—and AEDA helped her develop a business plan and prepare to apply for a bank loan. Ericka manages both businesses now, doubling down on her own talents and on the little patch of geography she’s known from childhood.
That’s the substance of creative placemaking. It’s people making investments at once personal and communal, whether large or small, that give life to a place and help it prosper—like the girl, about the age Ericka Trinh was when she started cutting hair, who on that warm Saturday night in Saint Paul turned to a friend and announced, “I have eight dollars left!” Then off she went to fling her last pennies into the currents of Little Mekong.