At the fairgrounds, teenagers know to come here — near the Fresh French Fries stand by the Mighty Midway. Arrive at dusk to claim your spot.
“Once you’re a freshman, you’re entitled to be here,” said 16-year-old Matt Connolly as he headed for the Midway on Friday — his second fair visit of the day. The junior at St. Paul’s St. Agnes High School lives a few blocks from the fairgrounds, and his Converse sneakers can get him to the gates in fewer than 10 minutes.
Many, like Connolly, wait all summer for this — those few hours each night when the Midway is taken over by teenagers. In an era when curfews keep them off the streets and malls sometimes require parental escorts, it’s one of the remaining spaces they can claim as their own. Most come multiple times. Some work for vendors during the day for free entrance at dark. Connolly, who gets tickets as Christmas and birthday gifts, made nine trips to the fair last year.
Friday’s attendance broke second-day records, with more than 140,000 visitors packing the fairgrounds in Falcon Heights. No one knows exactly how many teenagers flock to the fair on a given night. But by 10 p.m., crammed into the narrow space near the Midway entrance, teens outnumber everyone else in the area at least 50 to 1. And amid the youthful throngs, next to the whirring Sky Flyer, stood Connolly and several hundred of his closest friends.
Going to the fair on their own, they say, is a key step in adolescent independence. And how you get to the fair — catching a ride with a newly minted driver, being dropped off by parents, riding public transit together — is as important as what you do once you get there.
“Daytime is family time,” said 16-year-old Natalie Tsai, of Mendota Heights. “The night is for friends, and it’s a big deal once you get into high school.”
Known as a high-traffic area, the Midway also attracts State Fair police, who park cruisers in the middle of the crowd and occasionally part the chatting, picture-snapping teens by driving up and down the strip at a slow crawl.
“It’s a reminder to be on their better behavior,” said officer Brooke Blakey, spokeswoman for the State Fair police.
Heightened security this year means the high schoolers have to hand over their bags to be searched at the gates, which fair officials believe has helped curb underage drinking.
In the past, cops have issued five to 10 citations for underage drinking over the course of the 12-day fair, with last year resulting in only two citations, Blakey said. More common are disorderly conduct citations, with 30 doled out to teens last year.
For the most part, parents say they feel safe letting their kids roam the fair for set periods of time, which family researchers identify as an important landmark in adolescence.
“Achieving independence is such an essential part of any child’s journey into adulthood,” said Carol Bruess, director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas. “The State Fair offers yet another, every-end-of-August opportunity for an adolescent to do what is absolutely natural and essential to being a teen.”
For Connolly’s parents, striking a balance between boundaries and independence is crucial, and the fair, they say, provides a safe training ground. “It’s a good meeting place for kids to explore,” said Bob Connolly, Matt’s dad. “They get to make choices by themselves without parents tagging along.”
A longtime hangout
The Midway has been a hot spot for teens since the 1950s and ’60s, said State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer, who grew up a block away from the fairgrounds.
“When we were kids, we pretty much owned the fair and went all day, everyday, and that was critically important for neighborhood kids — that you were here,” Hammer said.
For teens today, making one’s presence at the fair known has an added step — posting on social media.
“You have to post on your Snapchat story and maybe put something like, ‘Hey, hmu at the fair,’ ” Connolly said, clarifying that “hmu” stands for “hit me up.”
At the Midway, it doesn’t take Connolly long to find Deveney Flood, 16, and Nick Wallisch, 17 — two pals from St. Agnes. Flood, throwing her arms around Connolly, moves easily from one group to the next, greeting old friends. The annual reunion is a last hurrah before school starts.
“They’re people you haven’t seen since the last fair,” Flood said. “We get so excited.”
Wallisch seems less at ease, raising his eyebrows at the shrieks and hugs.
“This is basically my least favorite social situation — behind dances,” Wallisch said. But he comes anyway, mainly for the grub and the people-watching, he said.
Texts and Snapchat
By nightfall, the smoky air smacks of French fries and scented body sprays, and there’s hardly room to take a selfie. Cellphones change hands, as do drinks — some from the soda stand and some in mystery water bottles.
“It’s like a mosh pit of teenagers in here,” one man exclaims shortly after 9 p.m., cradling his bucket of fries as he pushes his way out.
Throughout the night, Connolly texts seven friends at once, switching constantly between his messages and Snapchat. He’s often talking on his phone, crouching near the ground to escape the noise. He repeats the same thing: “Where are you? Meet me at the Midway.”
By 11 p.m., the fireworks have sizzled, and after taking some final snaps, the youthful crowd at the Midway heads for the exits. Connolly stops at Sweet Martha’s to grab a cone of cookies for his 13-year-old brother waiting at home. By 11:50, he’s passing under the gates to beat a midnight curfew. But he’ll be back.
“Just wait until tomorrow,” he said, checking his phone for new messages while sampling a cookie. “It’ll be even crazier.”