I did not wake up Monday morning expecting to purchase diabetic socks, a pulled pork sandwich, and suspiciously inexpensive “officially licensed” Brewers and Packers merchandise. Nor did I expect to take a two-question test to determine if I was going to heaven while drinking a High Life tallboy. Ok, I did not actually do these things Monday. But I could have, and all in one place: The St. Martins Fair.
For those who have not been, the St. Martins Fair is a bazaar held throughout the summer that becomes a bloated mile-long street festival on Labor Day weekend. It is overflowing with diversity, that one the thing that, to paraphrase the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, makes a place exciting and successful.
My wife, a veteran of the fair, failed to give our two sons and me fair warning of what we were walking into. It looked like Woodstock as we drove in among an eclectic mix of families, teenagers, and let’s just say interesting dressed folks holding something in beer cozies at 10:30 am walking down the side of road. I learned shortly thereafter they were walking to avoid paying five dollars to park directly below a sign that read “Park at Your Own Risk.” Having already paid the fee, I decided to risk it.
The fair itself is one part state fair, one part flea market, and one part Hamsterdam (for those familiar with The Wire.) The commercial diversity was striking. Sporting goods, clothes, art, furnaces, reflective vests, antiques, games (wooden for hip young urbanites and dusty used games from the 80s for hipper young urbanites), and just about anything else you would ever want, or likely, not want. But it was not just goods being hawked. A booth in front of the non-denominational Christian church spread its message by giving away free bottled water on the hot day. Another religious booth chose the more intense strategy of offering the aforementioned quiz that promises to reveal your fate in the afterlife.
The latter booth prompted the hilarious sight of a man opening a beer while declining to find out if he was going to heaven, stating, “I’m already there.” He was just the beginning. While pricing a 2006 Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl Champion beach towel I overheard two middle-aged women bemoaning the younger generations affinity for the halter-top. Another woman, clearly a mother, chastised the owner of a booth for selling children replica AK-47s that shot soft pellets. More broadly, the frequent sight of people from all walks of life enjoying the simple accessible pleasures of a cold beer and a cigarette on a summer afternoon gave me faith that sin taxes will long remain reliable sources of state revenue.
The one notably missing type of diversity at the Fair was, to the event’s detriment, racial. Aside from a few Hmong farmers selling produce it was a very white crowd. Nonetheless, I think the fair would have made Jane Jacobs proud. People were talking, eating, shopping, and most of all people watching. In other words, it was the unique event where attendees were both audience and entertainer.
The Fair was well worth the risk to my car, which made it home just fine. The whole day was a reminder that it is the mix of people, interests, and beliefs that makes not only the St. Martins Fair, but Wisconsin, a great place to live. The legislature would be wise to remember the value of Wisconsin’s diversity when it gets back to business after the fall elections. Homogeneity in our politics and our public policy approaches (like our communities) leaves too many fruitful and interesting doors closed. Plainly, our state’s politics ought to be as diverse and welcoming as our people.