For several years Neal Wilson has been a regular at the summertime festivals around his Lakeview neighborhood, but no more. “Ah, they’re just not the same,” he says. “They’re being ruined by greed.”

The last straw was the price of admission. Most people seem to assume that they have to pay to get into a neighborhood street festival. Wilson certainly did. But Tom Gray, a spokesman for the city’s Office of Special Events, says, “If the festival takes place on a public street you cannot be charged an admission at the gate–you can only be asked to make a donation. The issue is this–you cannot be charged to use a public street.”

Festival operators haven’t been eager to educate the public about the law. “The trick is to make people think there’s an entrance fee so they freely pay it, even if by law we can’t charge them,” says one festival producer who asked not to be identified. “I guess you could call it a game.”

Mark Thomas, owner of the Alley on Belmont, told me about the law a few weeks back, when I was interviewing him for a story regarding his feud with the Central Lake View Merchants Association. As an act of protest, Thomas hung banners from his store advising people that they didn’t have to pay to enter the association’s festival at Sheffield and Belmont.

As Thomas points out, the key to making money at the gate is in the layout of the entrance. In most cases the entrances are narrow lanes–cattle chutes, really–barely big enough to let through more than one person at a time. Instead of asking for a contribution, gatekeepers posted at the opening often tell people there’s an admission charge, generally from $5 to $10. “They usually post a sign saying it’s only a donation,” says Thomas. “But most people don’t pay attention to the signs. Most people pay ’cause they think they have to.” And, he says, anyone who’s reluctant has to face the peer pressure. “You’ve got all these people lined up waiting to get in–who’s gonna haggle with the guard over a donation? On a crowded day you pay just to keep the line moving.”

After my article on Thomas ran, on July 18, readers began calling in and e-mailing stories about confrontations at the entrance gates of various festivals. A Lincoln Park resident named Domini Frost, who’s from southern California, told of an uncomfortable exchange that took place on July 27 when she and her husband went to the Taste of Lincoln Avenue. “We’re young and go to college and, just like most young people, have limited funds,” Frost wrote. “The ‘donation’ to enter was $10, so $20 for both of us.”

Frost and her husband decided not to make a donation; having read the Thomas article, they thought they didn’t have to. “It looked cool, and we wanted to check it out,” she wrote. “There were only a couple of hours left, and it was on the way home. We approached the gates, and there were eight volunteers asking us for not a ‘donation’ but ten bucks each. As discreetly as possible I said we were choosing to not donate at this time. (We only had 20 bucks.) Then one female volunteer pounces on us and says loudly, ‘What do you mean you’re not donating? It’s $10 each for evening cover.’ My husband tells her, ‘No thank you–we can’t.’ One of the volunteers was a visibly drunk man sitting at the gate, and he says, ‘Ten dollars to get in now.'”

For the next few minutes Frost and her husband argued with the volunteers, who told them the gate charge was needed to raise money for the community. Eventually, she wrote, she told the volunteers, “We just want to check it out. Is the ‘donation’ required or not? Yes or no. Now I’m pissed and embarrassed. All eight volunteers give dirty looks and start saying things to each other. The drunk guy in the chair hisses his foul alcohol breath into my face: ‘No, not if you just want something for free.’ And under his breath, ‘You cheap bastards.’ I grab my husband, who is angry and seething but controlling his emotion, and say, ‘Yeah, we do and thank you!'”

Despite the rough beginning, they had a good time at the festival. Frost wrote, “We spent our 20 bucks on a couple of drinks and some great food….We definitely will frequent Lincoln Avenue in the future.” But, she said, “if it is illegal to force someone to pay, then they should follow the rules. And some people really can’t afford to spend cash, but they deserve to enjoy the festival too.”

Later Frost told me, “Honestly, I’m glad I knew we could say no to paying because I wouldn’t have gone if I thought we had to pay. They were just rude. I didn’t think it would happen in Chicago–friendly midwestern city and all that.”

Wilson had a less combative run-in with the gatekeepers at the Clark Street Community Festival on Saturday, July 19. “I suppose I can live with them charging a donation–if such a thing is possible–so they can raise the money to pay for the better bands,” he says. “But what’s with the raising admission–or donation–prices as the day goes on? I got there after seven, and the guy at the gate tells me I ‘had’ to pay $10, not $7, ’cause I got there after the cutoff time. I said, ‘What’s that all about?’ He says, ‘Well, the better bands come after seven.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s follow the logic here. Do the people who get here early get to see the good bands that come on later in the night?’ He says, ‘Yeah.’ So I said, ‘Why should I have to pay more just ’cause I got here late? If anything, I should pay less, ’cause I missed the earlier bands.’ He didn’t really have an answer because it makes no sense. They’re just trying to squeeze more money out of us.”

Wilson says he’s also upset by the escalating cost of a beer. “It used to be three bucks,” he says. “That was OK. But now it’s four bucks. With a tip, that’s $5 for a 12-ounce draft of Budweiser. That’s it. I think I’m done for the summer. I like the bands. It’s a great summertime thing. But it’s getting too damn expensive.”

Festival organizers say the reason they want people to pay at the gate is simple–they’re trying to make money. Their festivals aren’t city-subsidized gatherings, like the Fourth of July fireworks in Grant Park. They’re fund-raisers, and the city lets churches, chambers of commerce, and community groups use the street.

Over the course of the summer there are several hundred festivals–about 80 in August alone–around the city, according to Hank Zemola, president of Chicago Special Events, a for-profit company that organizes many of them. “We organize these events to raise money for not-for-profit organizations,” he says. “The fact is, these groups need the money. For many of them these fund-raisers are the only way they support themselves. A lot of groups have to depend on membership fees and special events like the neighborhood festivals. They’re the ones who are scrappy and really hoping that it’s not a rainy weekend. One rainy afternoon? That’s usually someone’s salary.”

Some of the bigger events have three or four music stages and corporate sponsors, generally beer or telephone companies. But even festivals with corporate sponsors want to bring in money at the gate, says Zemola. “The simple little events today are costly propositions,” he says. “You got insurance and security and the fees for electricity. You have to advertise. You have to get the portables and the Dumpsters and the people who pick up garbage. It’s funny, ’cause groups will tell you ‘We have volunteers to get the garbage.’ But there’s nothing glamorous about picking up garbage, and people quit all the time.”

Zemola says a small event that brings in 4,000 to 5,000 people can cost up to $120,000 to stage. “Your bigger events, like NorthHalsted Days, you’re probably looking at $250,000 to $300,000.”

The festivals also depend on beer sales, which is ironic, since many of the chambers of commerce and neighborhood groups that sell the beer are the first to complain about rowdy bars and public urination. “The dirty little secret about the festivals is that they need the beer,” says Thomas. “Remember when Clinton ran against Bush in ’92? ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ With the festivals, it’s the beer, dummy. It ain’t gonna work if you’re not selling the beer.”

According to Zemola, the proceeds from beer sales get divided among beer vendors or go to the sponsoring not-for-profit. “You can’t do it without the beer–you need the beer,” he says. “There’s something about having a beer and watching music or having wine and looking at crafts that’s part of Chicago. I don’t know if there’s glamour in it. I don’t know what it is, but people like to walk around with a drink. It makes them more sociable.”

Zemola insists that gatekeepers at his festivals don’t hassle people who choose not to make a donation at the entrance. “Go to some festivals,” he told me. “Check it out for yourself.”

So last weekend I went to three north-side neighborhood festivals–the Wicker Park/Bucktown Community Festival, the Chill on Kingsbury, and the Retro on Roscoe–just to see what would happen if I didn’t pay at the gate. It was much the same wherever I went–narrow gates, lots of gatekeepers, and people lined up like sheep waiting to be herded in. Some entrances had signs stating that the entrance fees were really suggested donations. Others had signs telling people all the good things the festivals paid for–computers for kids, books for libraries. I walked in without paying at all three festivals, drawing nothing more than sneers and scowls from the gatekeepers. (I then turned right around and walked back out.)

“It’s $5,” said a guard at the gate of the Retro on Roscoe.

“I’m just walking through,” I said.

“Suit yourself,” he said, shrugging.

At the Kingsbury festival I tried a different approach when the guard said, “It’s seven bucks to get in.”

“Actually that’s only a suggested donation,” I said. “What happens if I don’t pay?”

“We’ll beat you up,” he said with a straight face.

I laughed and walked in. No one tried to stop me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, Jon Randolph.