How to get there:
The Metro Transit Green Line light rail, running along University Avenue, connects this neighborhood to downtown St. Paul (15 minutes); the University of Minnesota (15 minutes); and downtown Minneapolis (25 minutes). It is literally in the heart of the Twin Cities metro area and is less than 45 minutes’ drive from nearly any point in the combined city.
Interstate 94 parallels University Avenue between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, with numerous cross streets providing quick access, with Dale Street and Marion Avenue as the easiest exits from the freeway.
This emerging neighborhood is spread out, however, and extends several miles to the east along the Pennsylvania and Phalen Avenue corridor, so there is no adequate central point to park and explore the whole area – a Metro Transit GoTo Card is useful, if you aren’t driving.
A brief history:
The Twin Cities’ Asian population was slow to develop – its multiple rail links to the Pacific were completed after the Chinese Exclusion Act came into play, so only a relative handful of merchants and tradespeople made their way North until after World War II.
Notably, Minnesotans adopted children from East and Southeast Asia after the war at high rates – Minnesota’s Korean adoptee population is the largest in the U.S. – but these people were scattered across the state in white, middle-class families with no neighborhoods or cultural institutions to call their own until much, much later.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when Minnesota’s growing technology and medical industries , and companies like 3M, Cargill, and Northwest Airlines, influenced significant immigration from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and China to take place. These settlers were highly-skilled and found homes across the metro area, again dispersed around the cities and suburbs so that no ‘ethnic Asian’ neighborhoods emerged.
But in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, much larger populations arrived from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – in particular, the Hmong ethnic group – and many of these people were refugees fleeing the wars and persecution in Southeast Asia. They were farmers and laborers from the tropics, with no English-language skills, arriving in the North at a time of farming and manufacturing decline. The arrival did not go smoothly; unemployment, crime, and social tension were high through the 1980s.
Families who had been settled a few at a time in different places around the U.S. started to find each other and coalesce in the 1990s; they needed bigger housing for grandparents and grandchildren so they pooled resources to buy in distressed neighborhoods where big houses could be had for cheap: North Minneapolis, the East Side of St. Paul, the Frogtown neighborhood in central St. Paul, and the northwestern suburb of Brooklyn Park.
Two generations later, it’s clear the Southeast Asian groups have become more Americanized – just as other immigrant groups have in American history: while poverty is still high, it is coming down and more small businesses are being formed. Millennial Hmong are as fluent in English and technology as their peers in any other city, they’ve become politically active, and they’re re-building their neighborhoods. They are becoming a new face of Minnesota with traditional Minnesotan and Asian values: industriousness, education, and social involvement. And – the Twin Cities have become the global capital of the Hmong diaspora.
Now in the mid-to-late 2010s, the Twin Cities are attracting even more Asian immigration: the most recent to arrive are Tibetans and the Karen from the Burmese/Thai borderland. Also, the University of Minnesota, with campuses in both cities, has become a significant destination for Chinese overseas students.
What to see and do:
The area now called Little Mekong is also known as Frogtown (named in the 1860s for its swamps, now long gone), but for the first half of the 20th Century was known as Rondo, and it was the Twin Cities’ thriving center of African-American housing, commerce, and culture. The neighborhood was wiped out in the early 1960s to build Interstate 94; the people were scattered, and commerce in the central Midway district suffered for another 50 years.
There are still some historically Black churches, community organizations, and restaurants in the University Avenue corridor with a small supporting population, but the neighborhood went through waves of resettlement, including Mexican and Central American, Somali and East African, Ethiopian, and West African peoples. Since the mid-2000s, Chinese and Southeast Asian influence has become the leading driver in the district’s redevelopment, and we’re calling it an emerging Asian District – but by no means a “traditional Chinatown.”
The starting point for any visit is the corner of University Avenue and Western Avenue (Western Avenue station on the Green Line); this is the heart of Little Mekong – on the southwest, the "pocket park" of Little Mekong Plaza; southeast – the former Old Home Dairy is being converted into an arts and business incubator plus housing; northeast – more restaurants, the Hmong Cultural Center, and popular Ha Tien Market; northwest – bakeries and community businesses. [Here's a great article about Ericka Trinh, owner of the excellent Silhouette Bakery, and her efforts to build business on this corner.] This is also the site of popular Night Markets in the summertime, where traffic is blocked off and dozens of food and merchandise stalls, and several stages, draw thousands to mingle and have fun.
For another mile west along University Avenue / Green Line, you’ll find Asian restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, merchants, and community organizations (Dale Street and Victoria Street stations.) The next four miles are witness to massive urban redevelopment brought about by the Green Line: new and renovated shopping centers, residential towers, pocket parks, and community centers are taking the place of rundown abandoned factories and warehouses, bringing thousands of new jobs and housing back into the center of the metro. The key crossroads of University and Snelling Avenues is also being redeveloped to include a Major League Soccer stadium (Minnesota United FC) set to open in 2018.
This long-read article in Politico from March 2017 gives a well-researched and balanced look at how the Green Line came to be and how the communities along the route fought for the changes that have resulted in its success and the re-birth of Little Mekong.
The University of Minnesota’s Stadium Village neighborhood is home to many excellent Asian restaurants, and the East Bank stop is close to the Weisman Art Museum, which contains a notable permanent collection of contemporary Korean works.
Traveling just a few minutes’ drive from University-Western, one of the Twin Cities’ most beloved attractions is Como Park: home of the metro area’s first zoo (still open year-round, with free admission), a kiddie amusement park open in the summer, an exquisite botanical conservatory (featuring an Asian wing), a traditional Japanese garden (home to a popular autumn lantern ceremony), outdoor pool, Lake Como with its restored pavilion, athletic fields (home to the annual Hmong Freedom Festival games), and extensive picnic grounds.
Heading northeast from University-Western are two well-used and growing community hubs: Hmongtown Marketplace at the intersection of Marion Street, Como Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue; and about 3-1/2 miles further on along Phalen Boulevard, the Hmong Village Shopping Center. These two complexes are part year-round farmers’ market, part shopping mall and food court, all locally-owned small-business incubators, with pharmacies and social service centers mixed in. They’ve become the “anchors” for the re-birth of St. Paul’s East Side – and either is great for a one-stop afternoon visit of tasty food and fun shopping.
Phalen Boulevard ends at another massive park and Lake Phalen, home to the metro area’s annual Dragonboat races – there is a boathouse where the craft are kept and maintained year-round, so that in the warm months teams can get regular practice in! A traditional Chinese garden is under construction there, too.
It will be interesting and exciting to see how this roughly 10-mile-long corridor develops as transit-led redevelopment and Asian-American economic and social growth converge!
Where family travelers can stay:
Access to the Green Line and nearby activities and affordable restaurants are key selling points for these hotels:
- The Doubletree by Hilton in Downtown St. Paul, one block from Central Station
- A brand-new Hyatt Place, next door to the beautifully-restored Union Depot in Lowertown St. Paul. The new St. Paul Saints baseball stadium, Farmers Market, Mears Park, and Mississippi River overlooks are just blocks away.
- A brand-new Hampton Inn on University Avenue in the Prospect Park neighborhood, just up-hill from Stadium Village and the University of Minnesota.
- The Commons Hotel, on-campus at the University of Minnesota and across the street from the East Bank Station. The Stadium Village and Dinkytown neighborhoods are immediately adjacent, both with excellent Asian food options (and all the usual college-town specialties).
- Courtyard Minneapolis Downtown, two blocks from the West Bank Station, in the Seven Corners neighborhood.
- Aloft Minneapolis, four blocks from the Downtown East Station and the new U.S. Bank Stadium. The Guthrie Theater, Mill Ruins Park, and the Stone Arch Bridge are only steps away.
- The Westin Minneapolis, in the middle of the Downtown Skyway system, and at the Nicollet Mall Station. Easy access to shopping along Nicollet Mall, plus the Target Field and Target Center sports complexes, theaters along Hennepin Avenue, and Orchestra Hall.
What other family travel attractions are nearby?
The Minneapolis Institute of Art (known locally as “Mia”) is home to the largest collections of Chinese and Japanese artworks and artifacts outside Asia, and is a world-respected center of research. Their Asian wing could easily take half a day to examine; plus another half-day for their photography, Modern, African, and European exhibits - fortunately there’s both a restaurant and café on-site. The Children’s Theatre Company is attached, check the schedule and you could make a full day’s outing in one stop.
In defiance of winter – and in celebration of the state’s beautiful spring, summer, and fall – Twin Citians love to play outdoors: the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha Falls, Como Lake, the Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center, and the full length of the Mississippi River are all well-suited for family fun.
Minnesota’s biggest tourist attraction is the Mall of America, next to the airport at the southern end of the Blue Line. It holds three levels of shopping, each a mile around, plus a Nickelodeon amusement park, a large aquarium, the Crayola Experience, a massive Lego store, two giant food courts, and a year-round schedule of special events to keep a family entertained for the whole day.