“I LIVE IN FROGTOWN,” I told my friends in New York nine years ago, when I moved to this neighborhood in St. Paul. For them, the name conjured up an image of quaint little village lamp posts draped with baskets of petunias. I couldn’t restrain the snort that escaped from me when I heard that. “Trust me—” I said, “—there isn’t a Starbucks within miles.”
Who knows where the moniker “Frogtown” was coined—but the land used to be swampy and has always been populated by immigrants. Most likely, it was a combination of the name, Froshburg, (frog city) that its German settlers used for it and the ancient and politically incorrect nickname used for the French, who also settled here. Either way, Frogtown was populated by frogs and the name stuck.
Frogtown has never been gentry-fied. It’s pure hoi polloi. A bevy of working-stiffs, emigrants & refugees. It’s the largest, poorest, youngest, most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the Twin Cities. Without a doubt—it’s the ‘hood. I got my first clue to this when the neighborhood patriarch, who’d live on my block for the past 60 years, asked me,
“Why would you move here voluntarily?”
Well, coming from New York, it looked like a normal neighborhood to me…and besides, it had a double lot for my passion—gardening—at an affordable price.
Now, I’m not a social butterfly and I’m sure no social worker so if it wasn’t for my garden, I never would have met my neighbors. But it seems that if you’re always on your knees, digging in the dirt, you’re granted a diplomatic passport in the ‘hood—anybody will talk to you.
So, in my nine years of crawling around my yard on all fours, I’ve met just about everyone in Frogtown—little kids stopping by for a drink from the hose on a hot day and ancient Hmong women who grin toothlessly, point at my flowers, nod, and grin again; barefoot hookers coming home after a night’s work, carrying 4-inch stilettos; dignified old men in hats pushing grand babies in strollers; gang-bangers looking for lost pit bulls and sleepy mothers waiting for school buses; twitchy tweakers waiting for dealers and dog walkers who keep track of my blossoms. Neighbors—all of them.
But I confess, my garden grew out of my frustrations with all the garbage in the gutters, the ugliness of poverty and the total lack of pride in the neighborhood. Why, I wondered, are rich neighborhoods so clean and ghettos so dirty?
I remember as a kid, asking my mother if we were poor. She answered without any shame,
“Yes, baby, we’re poor.” So my next question was,
“Then, how come we aren’t dirty?”
“Because,” she said laughing out loud, “darling, soap is cheap!“
I never forgot her answer. Poor doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with dirty—or ugly.
But in a place where the relentlessness of poverty sucks away any enthusiasm, where litter blows freely from curb to curb, hopelessness eventually becomes part of the landscape. Depression is a season
and frustration is the daily weather forecast. We begin to believe that we don’t deserve to be happy, or clean, or successful. And we certainly don’t deserve beauty around us. Beauty is an unattainable luxury—something you can’t afford, especially if you use the local food shelf… Right?
But beauty is powerful. It changes how you see the world. It changes how you feel in the world. It lifts your step the way a change of season can. If you doubt this, just try being miserable on a beautiful day. I dare you to stay depressed in a lovely garden. It isn’t possible. Because beauty is a basic human need, not an indulgence. It isn’t superfluous. It’s as vital as air. And it’s even cheaper than soap. Imagination and a little hard work are free.
That is how my garden grew. I was so weary of ugliness that I picked up the garbage not only from in front of my house but in front of my neighbors’ houses too. I planted more perennials. And annuals. Petunias, pansies, peonies, daisies, dianthus, phlox and cleome. I figured that if I made my corner gorgeous, kept my corner clean, maybe someone in a funk would feel a little better when they walked by. If someone saw me picking up garbage in the street in front of their house, maybe they wouldn’t toss it out their car window. If I put out a bowl of water for thirsty dogs, dog-walkers would smile. Maybe, just maybe, one or two kids would feel proud of their neighborhood.
What I figured was that if at least one person smiled everyday because my garden pleased them, it would be a victory. It might just give someone a little bit of hope on a day that they really needed it. And I ? I would have struck a blow against pestilent poverty—the kind that deadens the soul after a while.
A garden won’t save the world, but it’s something. In return, I get to live around beauty and defy forces that drag us down so we lose our self-respect. Strangely enough, people rarely litter any more on my corner. Best of all, I know my most of my neighbors.
I owe it all to my mother and this guerrilla garden.