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It's unlikely that, before this summer, many of the customers who passed through the bustling Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul's Frogtown knew how the neighborhood got its name.

After all, it's been decades since the marshes that once attracted the little green amphibians were filled in and since pollution from a landfill and other sites spoiled the habitat in which frogs thrive.

But that's changing, thanks to Chee Yang and FrogLab, the environmental education program she helped lead all summer long. Not only did Hmong adults and children alike learn about the frogs that once filled Frogtown, Yang said, they discovered how important frogs are to a healthy ecosystem. So important that FrogLab and its parent organization, Frogtown Green, are working to coax them back — starting by refreshing a retaining pond habitat.

"Oh, they'll come back," said Yang, an environmental science student at the University of Minnesota. "They know how to find their way back. That's the great thing about frogs."

From a stall in the sprawling marketplace filled with Asian food vendors, DVD peddlers, clothing shops and traditional Hmong apothecaries, Yang and FrogLab spent the summer spreading the word about frogs. They offered games and activities, educational materials and tips to recreate frog habitat, including how to make a backyard pond featuring native plants.

At first, she said, many shoppers were too shy to stop in. That changed over the 10 weekends she was there from May through September. On Saturday, Hmongtown Marketplace, Frogtown Green and the Capitol Region Watershed District celebrated the program with marimba music and puppets and masks of dragonflies, swans and, yes, frogs. Yang guesses that she worked with 500 area residents over the summer.

Still, she admitted that it sometimes seems few people in the Hmong community talk about the environment, even though most elders know the value of good soil and good water for farming.

"It's probably because there's so much stuff in the world. So many big issues," Yang said. "But water is important. And frogs? They tell us if the water is good, if there are fish. These are the resources that a human being needs to survive."

A pond for frogs

The program is the offspring of Frogtown Green, a volunteer group of area residents that began with Frogtown Park & Farm and has since helped create other small parks and community gardens, as well as sponsor dozens of events all over St. Paul.

Once, said Frogtown Green's Patricia Ohmans, there were so many frogs in the area and their trilling was so deafening that the late Archbishop John Ireland reportedly pegged the area as a "Frog City."

Now, however, the neighborhood is overwhelmingly urban, covered in concrete and asphalt.

"Where the marsh was is now where Hmongtown Marketplace is," said Ohmans.

Thanks to the work of Yang and the willingness of Jameson Liu, the general manager of Hmongtown Marketplace, a small stormwater collection pond at the south end of the property could soon become frog-friendly. Workers are renovating the retaining pond after a car crashed into it following a police chase.

"We wanted to have a pocket park," said Liu, who said Frogtown Green officials approached the mall's owners to talk about the area's history and to share information about what they could do to bring some of it back.

"We wanted to share that information with the public who comes to the marketplace," Liu said, "to have an active mindset about the need for clean water and water quality."

He added: "It turned out great. We want to do it again next summer."

Ohmans said the pond can serve as a small nature center, within minutes of downtown.

"It's a super great way to do outreach," she said of FrogLab and all that has happened in just a few months. "What we are hoping is that in the future other institutions will see this and take their show on the roads, so to speak."

Yang is confident frogs will return — as will dragonflies, birds and other wildlife. In April, just before she started the FrogLab project, a frog appeared near the pond.

"We thought, 'Wow! A sign,' " she said. "Nature is asking for us to help build its health back."

James Walsh • 651-925-5041