Two Sides of Frogtown

Published on September 17, 2020

When George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25, protests spread quickly throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. In our most recent Carrot Health Insights, we discussed the connection between public health and public safety. Our data tells a clear story: the same behavioral, economic, social, and environmental risk factors that contribute to disparities in health outcomes also directly impact public safety, economic opportunity, and social justice.

Data teaches us another important lesson: even if two neighborhoods or population groups have similar overall characteristics, under the surface they are actually quite different. We used our Carrot Social Risk Grouper (SRG) taxonomy, which gives individuals a numerical score of their Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) risks, to take a deeper look into Frogtown, the curiously-named neighborhood in St. Paul that’s close to the State Capitol, to better understand how calls for social justice in this particular community relate to the risks of the people who live there.

No one knows exactly how Frogtown got its name, though the area was swampy and filled with croaking frogs until development took off in the late 1800s. From its earliest days, Frogtown was home to many immigrant populations, as waves of Polish, German, Scandinavian, and Irish people settled there through the 1900s. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, a new group arrived under less hopeful circumstances.

The Federal Highway Act of 1956 funded the construction of I-94, which now divides St. Paul on its East-West route. I-94 decimated the Rondo neighborhood, home to a thriving Black community. Without their houses, social clubs, churches and retail stores, the people of Rondo dispersed, many landing in Frogtown. They were joined in the mid-1970s by a large population of Hmong refugees who fled Laos after the Vietnam War.

Frogtown, with an adult population of 35,246, has an aggregate SRG score of 52.98 (on a scale of 0-99, with 99 being the highest risk). This is slightly higher than St. Paul’s overall score of 48.25. Frogtown’s Black and Hmong populations fare much worse than the neighborhood average: 68.69 for Black adults and 68.54 for Hmong adults. Although these two sub-groups have nearly identical overall risk scores, the composition of these scores show significant variations.

Carrot SRG Scores for Frogtown, St. Paul
(Black & Hmong Populations)

Population Size (18+)8,1811,683
Overall SRG Score68.6968.54
SRG Sub-Scores (1.0 = average):
Financial Insecurity1.601.86
Housing Instability2.031.75
Discord at Home1.261.37
Low Socioeconomic Status1.681.63
Health Literacy1.021.10
Food Insecurity1.461.26
Transportation Needs1.191.15
Source: Carrot Health

For the Hmong population, the three highest SRG sub-scores are Financial Insecurity (1.86), Housing Instability (1.75), and Low Socioeconomic Status (1.63). For the Black population, Housing Instability is by far the highest score (2.03), followed by Low Socioeconomic Status (1.68) and Financial Insecurity (1.60). Looking at the Housing Instability score for the Black population, it’s hard not to think of the decimation of the Rondo community and its ongoing impact generations later. Home ownership is widely considered one of the critical ways that low-income families build and transfer wealth.

Interestingly, the lowest SRG sub-score for the Hmong population was Loneliness (1.02). This risk factor was lower even than the population at large, and may relate to the tendency of recent immigrants to live in multi-generational family groups. For the Black population, the lowest risk came from Health Literacy (1.02), which was close to the city-wide average, and indicates good information and education on health and wellness.

The biggest gaps between the two groups are Loneliness, Housing Instability and Food Insecurity. In other words, though the Hmong population seems to struggle more financially, they are better off than their Black neighbors when it comes to food, shelter, and social connections. This plausibly indicates higher social cohesion and support within the Hmong community. Hmong residents also benefit from the large community neighborhood food and retail market called Hmong Village at the junction of Rice Avenue and Como Avenue.

Given the history of Frogtown and nearby Rondo, and the high health risks of its residents, it is no surprise that the Black Lives Matter protests and calls for social justice were intense and passionate in that particular area of St. Paul. The proximity of a politically marginalized community to the State Capitol is another harsh irony.

Well-intentioned efforts to attend to the social service and health needs of those residents would be greatly aided by a more nuanced understanding of their circumstances and risks. It is difficult to look at the overall needs of neighborhoods or regions and make effective policy or social services decisions. Policy makers and healthcare organizations need to dig deeper and apply their remedies with precision and understanding to address the most significant risks that come from social determinants of health.

Perhaps most importantly, the groups and communities affected by any new policies or social programs should be consulted and involved in the decision-making. The construction of I-94 was a decision forced on the residents of Rondo, 70 years ago, without their agency. In speeches given during the protests of the summer of 2020, one refrain was often heard: “No decisions about us, without us.” Let’s hope that message gets acknowledged and heeded.

(Image credit: St. Paul Smart Trips)

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