Riot Fest is mindful of its footprint in Douglas Park—but the problem remains that it has pretty big feet. Credit: Illustration by David Alvarado

The Reader crew

Aaron Allen Digital reporting intern

Salem Collo-Julin Listings coordinator

Leor Galil Staff writer

Philip Montoro Music editor

Philip Montoro Let’s talk about a for-profit festival with a largely white audience taking over a public park in a majority Black and Brown neighborhood. Other fests have happened in Douglas Park lately, but Riot Fest was the first biggie. Do such events simply extract value from the park and the surrounding neighborhood while giving nothing back? Is there anything defensible about the practice? What could Riot Fest do to mitigate the harm?

Salem Collo-Julin I think the Chicago Westside Music Festival was in Douglas Park first, but I know it’s not the same thing. It started in 2011. It’s always been organized or cosponsored by the alderman, but as a privately run thing. It’s become a partner with the Park District in recent years.

Leor Galil The Chicago Westside Music Festival was also created to intentionally engage with the community.

Salem By people who already live or work on the west side.

Leor Riot Fest started in clubs, grew into a major outdoor festival, and moved to Douglas Park in 2015 following the fallout in Humboldt Park. Riot Fest is also far from cheap, and its aims are less community driven. Though I know its organizers have worked to give free tickets to anyone who lives close by.

It’s still a for-profit event that closes off a public park for more than the three days it takes to run the festival. The setup takes time, the cleanup can take even more depending on the damage.

Aaron Allen Yeah, despite being ousted from Humboldt via a pretty sizable community movement, Riot Fest and its organizers seem to feel like they did nothing wrong. Or that their community outreach efforts were sufficient, and they were essentially slighted by Humboldt Park residents.

Salem Agreed, though I do appreciate that now Riot Fest has a foundation that gives money back to community organizations.

Philip Aaron used the word “slighted,” and that’s apt for an organization that behaves as though it’s entitled to use public land for private profit. Riot Fest knows this is a bad look, and it’s working to mitigate the reputational harm it’s incurred. But does anybody disagree that it’s essentially extractive—despite the donations and free tickets and hiring for temporary jobs?

Leor That’s a Band-Aid. A nice Band-Aid, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem with Riot Fest and every other for-profit festival that blocks off public parks in Chicago.

Aaron I think part of the problem lies with there not being a popular existing model for community partnership in festivals like this. It seems like Riot Fest is trying. . . . In 2014, they did a turkey drive for Humboldt Park through the alderman’s office and gave away 600 turkeys. They now offer free tickets for residents who live within four blocks of Douglas Park.

Leor The spring after the first Riot Fest in Douglas Park, Chicago magazine named the neighborhood one of the city’s best places to live, in part because the staff saw the value of the property around the park. It was one of many “areas where you can get lots of value for your money and that appear poised to grow.”

I think Riot Fest could include neighbors in the planning process. It’s one thing to give away tickets. It’s another to give away tickets to see acts people in the neighborhood might care about!

YouTube video

Aaron I agree that giving residents a say in the planning process is important. I’m curious how many Lawndale residents actually attend the festival, even with the free tickets. How many people even know the tickets are available?

Leor According to a recent Block Club article, few residents are aware.

Philip There’s no responsible way to claim that Riot Fest is “for” that neighborhood. Not the way the Chicago Westside Music Festival is.

Leor It’s not—it’s too expensive to be “for” anyone who doesn’t intend to spend the entire weekend within the festival’s barriers.

Philip If that were my neighborhood park, I’d resent the festival. And I’m a middle-aged white guy who used to think he was punk! I couldn’t be more in Riot Fest’s crosshairs!

Well, I could have more money . . .

Aaron In Riot Fest’s original press release about moving to Douglas Park, the vast majority of the little “fun facts” discuss the history of the park itself.

Philip What bothers me is that the entire release skates around mentioning race and segregation.

Leor And also ignores the fact that for-profit events like Riot Fest don’t make it easy to interact with the neighborhood—there’s no reentry for general admission.

Philip What sort of restaurants, bars, or shops will white people going to a Black and Brown neighborhood for a festival end up patronizing? I know I’m being mean to white people here, but I’ve lived in Chicago long enough to see what happens when the racial makeup of a neighborhood changes. The businesses change too.

Salem Isn’t the selling point to local businesses that they’ll get a whole bunch of new visitors? I know that’s one of the things that was keeping some of the Division Street businesses on the fence about supporting Alderman Maldonado when he was starting to get testy initially about Riot Fest being in Humboldt Park.

Does Riot Fest invite local business to have vendor booths for free on the festival grounds? That’s a way that other festivals deal with locking everyone in.

Leor Riot Fest has a handful of vendors who (and I am making a big assumption here) are usually out at carnivals and street fests—they’re used to moving a lot of food, constantly.

I’m not sure how many of them are from the neighborhood, if any.

Aaron The efforts to do just enough are so thinly veiled, and that’s what makes everything look so terrible. As Philip mentioned, these festivals are obviously trying to skate around issues of race and class in the city, instead of engaging them directly and meaningfully.

What that press release says about Riot Fest’s fans is so false and cringeworthy: “They’re extremely passionate and socially aware and care about what neighborhood we call home, whether it’s by volunteering at local charities in the neighborhood or by just simply spreading the word about a local restaurant, bar or shop that’s left of the dial and cool.”

Philip Oh, this makes me nuts. The implication that being “socially aware” or volunteering as an individual will somehow solve structural problems perpetuated by systems and institutions.

That’s like trying to fix global warming by telling people to ride bikes or go vegan, while failing to mention motherfucking Exxon.

Aaron Exactly, unless you live here and are a part of these neighborhoods. The second part about “simply spreading the word” about local businesses as meaningful engagement really illustrates how there’s no real barometer for what community partnership actually looks like.

Philip I know none of us is in the festival biz, but what do we think a successful community partnership would look like?

Leor Make it free and have a community board where Lawndale residents can become involved in the booking process.

Both feel impossible.

Salem Perhaps starting with finding longtime community players—someone like George Daniels, who ran George’s Music Room on the west side for years—and involving them at the beginning of the process.

Philip This probably makes me a socialist or something, but I like the model the city uses for its big free festivals. Use tax money, grants, sponsorships, and so on to give people good music in public places. No fences. No tickets. Come and go as you please.

Of course that almost certainly removes the possibility of profit from the equation.

The Jazz Festival has also partnered with organizations all over the city—well, mostly the north side and south side—to present free satellite concerts before and during the main event. That’s a way to connect with community stakeholders and put the music on the ground where it belongs.

But of course those concerts won’t serve 40,000 people per day . . . even Millennium Park can’t do that without a ton of turnover.

Aaron I don’t think successful partnership is possible without the direct involvement of community leaders in the planning process. I also think that festivals thrown in community areas should be handled differently than those thrown in more public areas such as Grant Park. Should music festivals even happen in locations where most of the lineup doesn’t reflect the demographics or music interests of the majority of the community?

Philip Yeah, we keep coming back to that. Involving community leaders in the booking of Riot Fest could turn it into something unrecognizable as Riot Fest. This might not be a bad thing, but Riot Fest itself would probably resist!

I look forward to seeing what people smarter or better informed than us say about these problems in the comments later.

Salem I think if the residents and nonprofits in Douglas Park received a percentage of all profits made, it would be a start to building something better. I like the idea of a neighbor-led block club getting together to curate a music festival and then distribute checks at the end of it.

Leor In the end, isn’t that just the Westside Music Festival?

  • A video recap of the 2018 Chicago Westside Music Festival

Salem Neighbors don’t get cash money from the Westside Music Festival, but it’s free—and two out of the four headliners at this past one were west-side connected.

Philip One of the big issues is that the fee Riot Fest pays to use Douglas Park just goes into the Park District’s general fund. It’s not earmarked for Douglas Park itself. It’s like the festival-ecosystem equivalent of the TIF program—the way money gets diverted.

That seems super easy to undo, and it wouldn’t even require persuading Riot Fest to give up some of its profits.

Salem Yep, and that was set up during the Rahm years. Not sure if Lightfoot is looking at those contracts yet.

Aaron I’d overall just like to see a better understanding of what community engagement looks like with these huge festivals, and that can’t happen unless community members are a part of the planning and execution from the start. Which can’t happen unless the community is actually interested and engaged in the event and unless organizers care as much about community relations as they do making a profit. All of which seems unlikely when it comes to Riot Fest being in Douglas Park.

Philip Maybe Riot Fest could make like Out of SPACE and move to a golf course in the northern suburbs.

Leor Spring Awakening left Pilsen to go to the north burbs!

Philip This is my way of saying I agree with Aaron that little is likely to improve as long as the festival is in Douglas Park.

Aaron There are layers of complexity in this situation that can’t really be addressed to me without a direct sharing of profit, especially in more poverty-stricken areas. The exact same issues that made Riot Fest problematic in Humboldt Park apply to Douglas Park, possibly even more so. Addressing them requires a level of intentionality and attention to equity that I’m not sure festival organizers care to take, especially when it could harm profitability.  v

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. You can also follow him on Twitter.