Almost every summer since 1859, the Great Minnesota Get-Together has unfolded on a sacred piece of property in St. Paul, bringing people from across the state and the nation to walk its hallowed grounds. Not this year. When the State Fair Board announced last week that it would cancel the 2020 fair because of COVID-19, Minnesotans discovered the latest fair offerings: Disappointment-on-a-Stick, Anger-on-a-Stick and Relief-on-a-Stick.
On May 21, the Star Tribune asked readers online whether the Minnesota State Fair should be held this year. When I checked at 8:30 a.m., the poll was running 65 percent no and 20 percent yes and the rest asking for the decision to be postponed until a later date. By the time I looked again at 5 p.m., the numbers were running just about 50-50 with those favoring having the fair slightly outnumbering those who thought it should be canceled this year. Like everything else about dealing with a global pandemic, we are discovering that self-interest often eclipses communal health.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the State Fair. Since 1986, when Phyllis and I took a 2-month-old in a stroller through the fair, until last year, the fair was not to be missed — except if Rosh Hashanah was earlier in September. Those years the closest I could get to the fair was often a gift of a few Sweet Martha’s cookies (certified Kosher no less) upon my family’s return.
People are all treated alike
The fair is one of the last great gatherings where people are all treated alike. Sports used to be that place. But when folks realized that club seating and luxury boxes and suites could be used for making business deals while watching a game, the bleachers became places for the “bums” and the suites became places for the powerful. From neighborhoods to schools to organizations, economic stratification is evident at every turn in America.
On the streets of the state fairgrounds, you see a Minnesota walking together that you never see anywhere else. You realize that Minnesota is not a homogenous blend of Scandinavians or people with ancestors simply from Western Europe, but a multicultural state of folks all seeking the good life that it has to offer. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, wearing sandals or sneakers, may be that bank president or first responder — you simply don’t know.
Midway and ‘Miracle of Life’ barn? Not happening
What you do know is that there are still folks who perfect the craft of bread baking and whose accomplishment is rewarded with a Blue Ribbon that is proudly displayed. The seed art this year will be missed and Princess Kay of the Milky Way, the one place diversity seems not to have reached, will not have her face sculpted in a block of butter in the Dairy Building. The hucksters with their vege-matics and ginsu knives, the Midway and the “Miracle of Life” barn where urban folks can see animals being born up close and personal? Not happening this year.
What I fear is that the difficult and correct call made for the public’s health will become another opportunity to engage in “grievance politics.” In the absence of shared public spaces, this political art form only grows. The loss of the 2020 fair could heighten anger on both sides of the political divide and further push people away — ironically as a result of having to cancel the one place where people can all gather.
We will stomach our disappointment, but I suggest that it behooves us all to seek out places where we might see the “other Minnesota” than the one in our neighborhoods. Visit a restaurant in a neighborhood you rarely venture into, drive the backroads in counties you’ve never visited, shop at a business in a community far from your ZIP code. We can’t replace the great get-together, but we can remember what makes the fair so important: the people, all of the people, on the streets themselves. We owe it to one another to keep that piece of Minnesota alive this summer and every day.
Morris J. Allen lives in Mendota Heights and is senior community liaison for U.S. Rep. Angie Craig. He is rabbi emeritus of Beth Jacob Congregation, where he served for 33 years.
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