During Riot Fest 2014, rain mixed with heavy foot traffic disfigured Humboldt Park. Community outrage about inadequate repairs prompted the festival's move to Douglas Park last year. Credit: Peter Holderness

On a recent Monday afternoon, members of a group called Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park guided a visitor around the west-side green space they say was disfigured by the three-day music festival last fall. Eight months after the fest, the south end of Douglas Park—bounded by Ogden, Albany, 19th, and California and occupied by soccer and baseball fields—still displays tire ruts and wide, muddy areas where heavy foot traffic from 135,000 festgoers tore up the turf. Although the tour took place days after the last rainstorm, pools of standing water remained on the compacted dirt.

The fest debuted in Douglas Park last September after it was ousted from Humboldt Park, where it had taken place since 2012. Humboldt Park residents complained that the event turned that park’s turf into a mud zone that Riot Fest organizers never properly repaired, prompting 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado to pull his support for the concert.

Members of Concerned Citizens say Douglas Park has experienced the same problems. In the immediate aftermath of the concert, much of the south end of the park was fenced off until November while crews hired by the festival made repairs—but the activists say it’s obvious the green space remains in disrepair.

“This park is not structured to receive that many people and maintain its health,” says nearby resident Nance Klehm, a veteran landscaper and sustainability advocate. “There’s no Band-Aid to that. It needs to be restructured, and the soil needs to be reengineered.”

Concerned Citizens activists say that Riot Fest should never have come to Douglas Park. They claim that Riot Fest, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Park District, and the local aldermen made the decision to move the event to the park with little or no input from the primarily African-American and Latino residents of the neighboring North Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods. They’ve hosted public meetings on the subject, collected signatures on petitions against the fest, held protests, and have lobbied their aldermen and the Park District about the matter. At a 24th Ward community meeting in June 2015, the first to take place after it was announced Riot Fest would be held in Douglas Park, Concerned Citizens members displayed signs reading a 3-day binge is not an economic development plan and lawndale is a community, not a commodity

“It’s disrespectful to tell two communities that something is going to happen in their park instead of asking them to let you have it in their park,” says UIC grad student Sharaya Tindal, who helped form Concerned Citizens in spring 2015 because she was worried about the impact Riot Fest would have on Douglas Park.

The group is upset that the festival will return to Douglas Park on September 16-18. “This concert is not for this community,” Tindal says. “It’s not even for us, and we are being locked out of our own park.”

IT’S A GROWING REFRAIN in Chicago. As large-scale music festivals—Riot Fest, Lollapalooza, North Coast, Pitchfork—have proliferated throughout the city over the last decade, aldermen, community groups, and concerned residents have begun questioning the rationale behind turning over public parks to private entities for much of the summer. And with repairs sometimes stretching into the fall, popular areas of parkland can remain closed for much of the peak season.

The executive director of Friends of the Parks, Juanita Irizarry, says her organization frequently hears from residents who are concerned that a concert is being foisted upon their park without adequate public input, or people who feel like the event being planned is out of scale with the park. “It’s clear that there tends to be a general lack of appropriate community process around decisions about concerts and festivals in parks,” she says. “There also exists serious tension between parks as revenue generators and tourist attractors versus parks as places of recreation and relaxation for local residents.”

Chicago officials see things differently. Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner says that renting public land to private companies is a net positive for the city. “For private events like Riot Fest, Lollapalooza, and other ticketed festivals, event organizers must pay to use park space,” she says. “Proceeds from such events directly benefit Chicago Park District parks and programming.”

Lollapalooza, for instance, has caused as much as $1 million of damage to Grant Park (that was back in 2011, when torrential downpours softened the turf). But part of the ten-year agreement between the fest’s producer, C3 Presents, and the Park District guarantees a full annual restoration of the park and a minimum payment of $1.5 million to the park system, plus a percentage of the net admission revenue, which was set at 11 percent in 2012 and will increase annually until it reaches 15 percent in 2021. In addition, each year the Park District gets a 5 percent cut of all sponsorship revenue Lolla makes in excess of $3.25 million, as well as 5 percent of food and beverage revenue in excess of $3 million.

Irizarry says Friends of the Parks is currently checking in with park advisory councils, neighborhood groups, elected officials, and event promoters with the goal of devising a tool kit to help communities make informed decisions about whether and how local parks should be used for festivals.

The tool kit could help avoid the kind of discord that resulted from Riot Fest’s treatment of Humboldt Park, which became increasingly intolerable to neighbors, according to Lynda Lopez, a Hermosa resident who campaigned against the event as part of the social welfare organization Grassroots Illinois Action. “There was growing anger with Riot Fest’s presence,” she said, citing the disruption of park activities, the high noise level, and the perception in the largely working-class Latino community of the event as a symbol of gentrification.

Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park organizers Sharaya Tindal, Nance Klehm, and Sara Heymann say the park remains in disrepair eight months after the festival.
Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park organizers Sharaya Tindal, Nance Klehm, and Sara Heymann say the park remains in disrepair eight months after the festival.Credit: John Greenfield

the last straw came during Riot Fest in 2014, when heavy rain mixed with the crowd and production traffic, leaving a large portion of Humboldt Park bruised and battered. Last April, seven months after the fest ended, 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado came out against the festival, which had supported his 2014 reelection campaign. “I am exceptionally disappointed at the Riot Fest organizers for the mess they left at the park last year and their shallow and hollow promises to restore the park,” Maldonado told RedEye. “I don’t support them coming back.”

Park District CEO Michael Kelly offered up an alternative, recommending Riot Fest move the event three miles south to Douglas Park. Alderman George Cardenas of the 12th Ward and 24th Ward alderman-elect Michael Scott (he was inaugurated in May 2015) were in favor of the idea.

Mayor Emanuel said at the time that Riot Fest would be held to a strict standard for repairing Douglas Park, and if organizers failed again, it wouldn’t get another chance. “I don’t think it’s in their best interest to have a second park say we don’t want you in Chicago,” the mayor said. “So they’ve been put on notice to be a better citizen in holding this festival because if you go O for two, we don’t have a three-strike rule in the city of Chicago.”

Riot Fest organizers paid $225,000 into the Park District’s general operations fund for the use of Douglas Park. They also held a job fair to recruit about 150 neighborhood residents for short-term, minimum-wage jobs during the festival.

To further ingratiate itself, the fest donated hundreds of turkeys to residents and held a toy drive at Christmas that was conducted in a rather unorthodox manner. Riot Fest falsely claimed that a “bitchin’ Camaro” owned by the festival had been stolen from outside of the Cobra Lounge on the near west side. A ransom note from the supposed thief said the car would be returned only if Riot Fest fans donated $2,500 to a crowdfunding campaign to purchase presents for underserved children in the communities near Douglas Park. After the theft was revealed as a hoax, near-west-side alderman Walter Burnett denounced the scheme as a case of the festival crying wolf.

The company, which also holds an annual fest in Denver, also organized a free soccer clinic for local youth featuring players from the Chicago Fire and held a meet and greet event with Ice Cube for area students.

Riot Fest spokeswoman Heather West says that the organization has already spent $192,000 on park repairs and improvements and will be doing more this spring and summer. “Long-term improvements to preexisting park issues have now become the festival organizers’ primary focus moving forward,” she says.

“Riot Fest has brought positive attention to Douglas Park,” says Alderman Scott, whose ward includes parts of North Lawndale. “We’re now renowned as the next best place to move in Chicago, and Riot Fest has had some positive impact in that manner.” The alderman was alluding to a Chicago magazine article that referred to Douglas Park as one of several up-and-coming neighborhoods. (Cardenas didn’t return interview requests.)

Scott says that Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park represents a vocal minority of naysayers, while most residents have welcomed the festival. One of the people in the latter camp, truck driver Charles Rice, a lifelong area resident and member of the Douglas Park Advisory Council, has coached the North Lawndale Eagles youth football team for the last 27 years. “I think the festival is beneficial,” he says, citing the fact that Riot Fest donated about $900 worth of water, juice, and soda to his football league’s annual awards dinner. “If I get over 100 people on my team benefiting from Riot Fest, I’m with it,” he says. “And [Concerned Citizens wants] to complain because there’s a pothole in the grass?”

But the activists have a laundry list of other grievances. They note that it’s hard to tell how much, if any, of the event’s permit fee will directly benefit Douglas Park. (The Park District has declined to provide specific figures and has instead directed residents to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get the information.)

At the same time, the activists say that the park actually lost money because the turf damage that remained last fall closed soccer and baseball fields, facilities they say bring in $40,000-$50,000 a year in rental revenue.

The temporary jobs created by the fest are a drop in the bucket, says Tindal of Concerned Citizens, and the roughly $3,000 vendor fee is a barrier to area small businesses that might want to sell food or merchandise. Scott says he wants to see the fee lowered for local merchants, but he didn’t say whether he’s actually asked the fest to do this.

Concerned Citizens organizer Sara Heymann, who teaches costume and set design at nearby Dvorak Elementary, took photos of Little Village’s Cermak Road business strip after last year’s Riot Fest. She says the shots show a “ghost town” with few concertgoers spending money at the taquerias and bodegas, which conflicted with boosters’ claims that the festival would be a boon for local merchants.

Citing a heavier than usual police presence in North Lawndale during Riot Fest, Rice says that weekend was largely free of the violence that too often plagues the neighborhood.

But Tindal says she heard reports of local youth being harassed and followed by overzealous officers “playing concert security” during the event. “It was really ironic to hear Ice Cube singing ‘Fuck tha Police’ while people from the neighborhood were stuck listening from outside the gates, and the police were there to keep them out,” she said.

The activists say that, although they didn’t attend Riot Fest in Douglas Park (some of them surveyed the area from outside of the gates), they actually enjoy many of the artists who performed. Heymann used to organize underground punk shows herself. “I’m 100 percent pro-punk,” she says, “but a public park is not an appropriate space for a private concert.”

SIMILAR ARGUMENTS HAVE been made against massive Lollapalooza, which in its 12th year in Grant Park will occupy much of the city’s “front yard” from July 28-31, featuring acts such as Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and LCD Soundsystem. A friend of Friends of the Parks, Elaine Soble, a retiree who lives across the street from the park, says Lolla and other big events in the area make life difficult for those who live downtown. She’s been meeting with fellow area residents to discuss strategies for lessening the fest’s impact on its neighbors.

Lollapalooza drew 300,000 attendees in 2015—and this year it’s tacked on an additional full day of music. “The fests keep getting bigger, and the noise factor is horrible,” Soble says. “Street closures create traffic headaches before, during, and after big events. Everyone who can get out of town for that weekend does.” She added that while green space in Grant Park near her home on the 900 block of South Michigan is outside the official festival grounds, it’s commandeered for staging equipment during the event, so it’s not available for use.

As for Lollapalooza’s benefits for the park and the city, Grant Park Conservancy president Bob O’Neill speaks glowingly. “Grant Park looks phenomenal all the other days of the year because of the few days Lolla is there,” he says. According to O’Neill, the fest has paid to have hundreds of trees planted and gardens refurbished in the park. However, much of the need for those new trees and rosebushes was due to the fact that the old ones were damaged by festival attendees.

He says Lollapalooza bankrolled the resodding of Hutchinson Field at Grant Park’s south end and landscaping of the area around Buckingham Fountain, as well as providing funds for the recent construction of Maggie Daley Park on the north. (C3 Presents didn’t respond to a request for an interview about any efforts made to mitigate damage to Grant Park and make sure the event is a net positive for local residents.)

Use of public green spaces for private festivals that fund park improvements is the wave of the future for Chicago, O’Neill says. “This model is not going away, because the city and the state are in such dire financial straits. So if it’s done well, I support these kind of public-private improvements.” He says this requires local residents and community organizations to be proactive about negotiating with festival organizers regarding specific demands, including the requirement that the parks be properly repaired and also improved afterwards, and holding the fests’ feet to the fire to make sure there is follow-through.

O’Neill says that the lack of communication and negotiation between Riot Fest and residents led to the downfall of the Humboldt Park event. “Moving to Douglas Park was costly, and it was bad PR,” he says. “If Riot Fest had communicated with the neighborhood, it would have been a much better situation.”

“The model of public green spaces being leased to private festivals is not going away, because the city and the state are in such dire financial straits.”

—Grant Park Conservancy president Bob O’Neill­

North Coast Music Festival, which occupies Union Park on the west side, has also faced flak from locals. Now in its seventh year, the fest will take place September 2-4, offering up an eclectic mix of EDM, jam bands, and hip-hop. West Loop residents have complained about noise, traffic, and parking headaches, plus drunk and drugged revelers hanging out in the neighborhood after the fest. Notably, in 2013, 22-year-old Sam Schauer of Auburndale, Massachusetts, stripped naked near the festival grounds and jumped ass first onto the front of a moving Mercedes, shattering the vehicle’s windshield. He was tasered by police, who said at the time they believed he was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.

Asked what North Coast is doing to address these community concerns, spokeswoman Michele D’Amaro replied via e-mail. “Over the past seven years, North Coast Music Festival has worked closely with various neighbors and community organizations to ensure a safe event and mutually beneficial partnership with the surrounding Near West Side community,” the statement read. “The neighborhood around Union Park has seen dramatic changes in the last 5 to 10 years, and our plans will continue to adjust to the developing needs of the community.”

At a community meeting last week, North Coast organizers told residents they’re planning to reduce the number of main stages from five to three, hire uniformed Chicago police officers to provide security, and add a hotline neighbors can call with concerns. D’Amaro also noted that North Coast has provided funding and donations to the Union Park Advisory Council, the Women’s Center of Chicago, the Hope Institute Learning Academy, First Baptist Congregational Church, and the Heartland Alliance.

Music journalist Jim DeRogatis has written extensively and critically about park privatization issues on his blog for WBEZ. He says that Chicago officials should look to Milwaukee’s Henry Maier Festival Park—a lakeside space downtown that’s the dedicated home of Summerfest (promoted as “the world’s largest music festival”) and a spate of ethnic festivals—as a model for how to stage big fests within cities.

“Milwaukee does [outdoor festivals] better than Chicago,” he says. “As a Chicago music critic and fan, I take great shame in that.”

Constructed in phases during the 70s and 80s on the site of a former U.S. army Nike missile site, the Milwaukee park has several distinct advantages, DeRogatis says: Since the events take place on pavement, not turf, rain doesn’t allow foot traffic to turn the grounds into a mud pit requiring weeks of costly repairs; the venue is centrally located and it has permanent concession stands and restrooms (more sanitary than porta-potties); and instead of providing only a few days of temporary work for local residents, it creates more stable seasonal jobs. Plus, DeRogatis says, Maier Festival Park’s scenic Marcus Amphitheater is far superior in terms of sound and aesthetics to Grant Park’s spartan Petrillo Music Shell.

While DeRogatis isn’t certain of the best location for such a venue in Chicago (he brought up Northerly Island and the former U.S. Steel South Works site on the southeast side as possibilities), he’s convinced that the status quo of concert promoters commandeering parks citywide needs to be interrogated. “No one wants to be seen as being anticulture,” he says. “But that doesn’t preclude asking the simple question: Is it worth it?” v