7 Mile Fair is Dead. All Hail the New 7-Mile Fair!
It began as a flea market founded by a farmer in 1961 on an acre of his own land near the Racine and Milwaukee border along the I-94 corridor. Some might think of 7 Mile Fair as stuck in time, essentially unchanged in the 20 years since they last shopped there, but today’s active consumers and vendors there have fundamentally changed the dynamic, even though the set-up doesn’t look much different.
It’s late Sunday morning in early April. The temps outside are still a little too cold for vendors to camp outside in the acre behind the market square and expo buildings – except for that one guy who has eternally camped out his southwest corner spot with permanent wares ranging from old vacuum cleaners to play sets. From a distance, shrouded under a hoodie, he looks like a hermit. I watch him while standing in the long line to get in the door.
I have never waited in line during the off-season before. This semi-annual pilgrimage is not special; I just need to kill some time. And, like a true pilgrimage, I don’t fully comprehend the languages spoken around me. The new dynamic of 7 Mile Fair makes it a familiar and welcome gathering space for recent Wisconsin immigrants (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Honduran, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Pakistani, Indian), who are often treated the same by the old immigrants (Dutch, Czech, Norwegian, Irish, French, Slovenian, German) elsewhere. The funny thing is: the ethnic shift hasn’t changed the makeup of how 7 Mile Fair works in the slightest.
A cursory look across internet blogs often bemoans the loss of 7 Mile Fair’s original concept. It used to be a place to find fresh-off-the-farm eggs and vegetables. It used to be a place to find used goods, spare parts, oddities, antiques, shammies, cookware, toys and as-seen-on-TV items. It used to be a place you could haggle and wrangle. The only problem with this complaint: all of this can, of course, still be found there.
But some time during the past 10 years, vendors found it profitable to not only reach an untapped market with ethnic wares, but to specifically market ethnic material not commonly found in retail stores. And beyond that, a mashed-up market of Americanized teens belonging to a race via family and neighborhood – who then create mashed-up American products – created an entirely new, ethnic-American flavor.
This is how Bart Simpson-as-Latin-gangster t-shirts, full-sized slot machines with Chinese characters and Buddha desk lamps propagate. You can get a treat while you walk around, from homemade ices layered with fruit and lime juice to churros and even off-season corn-on-the-cob. The fruit stands have tomatoes and oranges. These don’t appear to be as fresh as the cacti and peppers, though.
It might be a waste of time to complain about a decline in quality over the years. What was cheap and made overseas then is still being sold now. But what qualifies here as a low-culture beat is not the existences of foreign vendors, customers or items like Tejano-themed first communion suits and dresses. Instead, at the heart of the venue, American pop culture and consumerism is exposed for what it is through the lens of other, sometimes co-opted, cultures.
Much of the chattel at the new 7 Mile Fair is nationally transmogrified: it takes the branding of something known (i.e., a cartoon character, a religious icon) and sends it through the filter of another culture in development until it stands for something else. The mere fact that these items are now in the context of a flea market is tangential to the argument. Take the same article and place it in a high-end boutique in another neighborhood for 10 times the cost and it retains the same value to the new buyer.
But place said item in a storage box with dozens of dusty siblings, out of its proper packaging and priced to move, and the strength of the symbol and “need” of that item fails. If there is any complaint that could be lodged against modern vendors at the revered bazaar, it’s that the showmanship of presentation is starting to flag. Every culture likes to be sold on wanting to buy.