Riot Fest serves as a case study on community inclusion

A baseball diamond in Humboldt Park, the former site of Riot Fest.

Photo by Max Herman

A baseball diamond in Humboldt Park, the former site of Riot Fest.

You might think that after being kicked out of Humboldt Park by community opposition, Riot Fest promoters — and the aldermen and park officials backing them — would pay more attention to community input at the proposed substitute site, the West Side’s Douglas Park.

If so, you’d be wrong, according to community residents who are demanding a public hearing and strict accountability measures.

Or perhaps the promoters thought that the adjoining low-income areas including North Lawndale would be more docile, or as one music website put it, “less money in the neighborhoods surrounding Douglas Park could mean less pushback from residents.”

In that case, they’d be wrong, judging from the turnout at a community meeting last week attended by scores of residents. In a poll at the end of the meeting, 52 percent opposed moving Riot Fest to Douglas Park and 37 percent supported it only if clear commitments for community benefits were established, according to organizer Sara Heymann.

Opposition in Humboldt Park sharpened after Riot Fest grew last year to encompass the entire park, and damage from the festival remained months later. Little League teams were unable to use the park’s baseball diamonds this spring.

The influx of outsiders who trashed the park crystallized neighborhood concerns about gentrification. And fencing off the entire park and charging high admission prices raised objections to the use of public resources for private profit. In Humboldt Park, the annual Puerto Rican Festival offered a clear contrast — it stretches across the park with music, food, and cultural activities, but it remains free and open to all. It’s been going on for almost 50 years.

Many local businesses featured “No Riot Fest” signs, saying the supposed economic spillover from the festival was limited by its “no in-and-out” policy. And when the Chicago Park District closed the Humboldt Park beach, it was clear that revenues from the festival weren’t being invested back into the park.

Humboldt Park activists demanded the festival be relocated to a downtown park or a venue where it wouldn’t cause problems for park users in other neighborhoods. Riot Fest and the park district didn’t listen.

“They were kicked out of Humboldt Park because they were so disruptive,” Heymann says. “Why aren’t they communicating with the community at all?” She said that Riot Fest, local aldermen and the park district “have literally told us nothing.”

In Douglas Park, sports leagues will be displaced from several soccer fields and baseball diamonds for two weeks ahead of the festival and (best-case scenario) two weeks following, said Dion Miller-Perez, another neighbor organizing for public input. With nine stages and well over a hundred vendors planned — and with heavy equipment used to set up and tear down — there are concerns about the special turf on the soccer fields, he said. And the football field used by Collins High School will also be off-limits; the September festival will displace the team for several weeks at the start of the football season.

With more than 50,000 people a day expected to attend, congestion is another issue, particularly with two hospitals bordering Douglas Park — Saint Anthony and Mount Sinai, home to the West Side’s trauma center. “Hospital folks we’ve talked to aren’t very happy about it,” Miller-Perez said.

Residents want a clear commitment on community benefits. “They’re making millions of dollars,” said Miller-Perez. “What is the community going to get out of it?”

Riot Fest’s admission prices — currently three-day passes are available for $189 — effectively prevent most local residents from attending, Heymann argues. “We’re being kicked out of our park and we can’t even get into the festival.”

And she adds a note of irony: “The fact is that police arrest people in the neighborhood a lot for drugs and alcohol, but at Riot Fest you have people using drugs and alcohol — but they’ll be gated off and protected by police.”

She doesn’t need to point out that the people being protected by police inside the gates are mainly white, and the people being arrested outside the gates are mostly African-American.

At yesterday’s park district board meeting, residents demanded that no permit be issued for Riot Fest without a public meeting to air community concerns — held in the community, not downtown, Heymann said.

  • franklin gerty

    Sara Heymann is a white girl who went to Pratt. I’m glad she’s coming into Douglas Park and telling the poor black folk what to do. She’s a savior. Also Riot Fest tickets started at $89 and just like the did in Humboldt Park, Riot Fest gives free tickets to neighbors.

    • I’m told that in Humboldt Park, they gave tickets to people living immediately adjacent to the park (that is, on the street bordering the park but not for example on the next block over) and some to the alderman’s office. So they give free tickets to *immediate* neighbors – but I don’t think that invalidates the point that neighborhood residents in general can’t afford it. – Curtis Black

      • Dingus

        Didn’t they give hundreds of tickets to the Alderman to distribute? Free tix for immediate neighbors. Free tix if you volunteer. Free tix if you pick up trash while at the fest. The list goes on. If you speak with the neighbors, you’ll find many support and attend the fest. It’s a world-class music fest. Your own photo shows how great the park looks. Yeah, it took Spring to spring to get the grass to grow back. No biggie. There are huge fests in parks all over the city. It’s what helps make a world-class city. My tax dollars go to have a place for your kids to play and go to school 365 days a year. And I have no children. Can I have a few days where there’s a music fest I can appreciate in the park? Neighbors are fine when they take natural park space and put in playground equipment that I don’t use, tennis courts I don’t use, Little Cubs field, etc. What’s the big deal with a few days for music for adults. You’ve taken my tax money all year for your kids. How about giving back so a big boy can hear some old songs and enjoy the beautiful park in my neighborhood.

        • Dingus

          Oh…and now the “people of humboldt park” want to use millions of tax dollars to maintain an artificial body of water that requires purified water to be constantly pumped into the park all summer long. Costing millions and wasting valuable natural resources/fresh water. But grass seed needs to be put down after a fest and that’s an ecological disaster. Please.

          • PulSamsara

            Exactly. No more ecological disaster beach.

    • PulSamsara

      How is this not racism ? It is.

  • Curtis Black

    You’re way off base with this: Sara is not trying to tell “poor black folk” what to do, she’s trying to get festival promoters and elected officials to be accountable to the neighborhood. Whether you’re a supporter of Riot Fest in Douglas Park or not, it seems to me that’s just being a good neighbor.

    • Dingus

      They throw a music fest. In a park. The benefit is that we get to enjoy great music. In the park. It’s a few days a year. I look forward to it all year. Not everything has to be accompanied by some other treats for the community. A large part of the community goes out to the event because it’s so great. Not everyone is going to love it. Just like not everyone loves PR fest…or any other large music party in the park.

  • Karen P

    Riot Fest also offered free tickets in exchange for volunteer hours.
    All spring leagues in Humboldt Park started on time. Majority of local
    businesses and residents featured pro Riot Fest signs. No in-and-out
    policy is at all festivals. This is a very poorly written article with
    no facts or effort.

    • Curtis Black

      It’s not in dispute that there was extensive damage to Humboldt Park and that restoration work was not completed in a timely manner. At the end of April, Riot Fest promoter Michael Petryshyn said, “Some areas need additional maintenance,” and Ald. Maldonado said, “Some of the leagues have not been able to start playing.” Other leagues started on time but had to move from Humboldt Park.

      There were undeniably a lot of “No Riot Fest” signs in local businesses; residents I’ve talked with felt they were predominant. Whether or not all festivals have a “no in-and-out” policy, it would seem to limit the economic spillover. Riot Fest’s “Karma Kash” program (which to me has a rather tacky name) offered a limited number of free tickets to people who volunteered for 25 hours at a nonprofit; that offer ended in January, long before Riot Fest decided it wanted to move to Douglas Park.

      It’s probably the confluence of heavy rain and the heavy trucks and machinery used to place huge stages and vendors around the park that is to blame for the damage, but the question remains whether Riot Fest is too big and too taxing on the infrastructure of a neighborhood park, even one as large as Humboldt Park or Douglas Park. Whatever good works or p.r. strategies Riot Fest undertakes, this seems like a legitimate question.

      And if residents say they want a public conversation around these issues, it seems to me they’re entitled to it.

      • Dingus

        The real question is do we want crowds in any chicago parks. I personally think the answer is yes. Do you realize how many millions of vistors use the parks on a daily basis. And if it’s 20 or 30 thousand for PR fest vs. 50 thousand for Riot Fest….what’s the tipping point? 30,000 people is dandy. But 50 wrecks the park? It rained. Grass seed had to be spread. Easy peasy.

  • PulSamsara

    Maldonado and his racist league are the only reason why the Riot Fest isn’t playing HP.

    Their deeds will not being forgotten.

  • dtkindler

    This article tests not a single assumption. It only serves to reinforce convenient and comforting themes. Come on Curtis. Humboldt Park was a proxy battle over gentrification and shifting Puerto Rican political power. Maldonado stuck his finger in the wind and did the most immediately expedient thing. Others have pointed out the factual inaccuracies. The Chicago Reporter used to challenge assumptions and report behind the headlines. This article is the laziest kind of reporting that gloms onto easy themes and avoids any actual interpretation of the complex dynamics involved. Did you even talk to anyone associated with Riot Fest. You take all of Heymann’s assertions at face value without exploring her agenda to build an organizing movement by hopping on convenient issues that can stir controversy.

  • caitlin

    The fest outgrew the park. It will probably also be too big
    for douglas park unless they make it smaller. We went every year – they book
    terrific bands – and in the beginning brought our little daughter. (free tickets
    every year btw, and we live three blocks west). By last year it was insanely
    packed and no way could we have brought children. The park was trashed for
    months. But it isn’t a gentrification issue as much as some people are making
    it out to be; our neighbors, all races, had various opinions on the issue that
    did not fall in line with political stereotypes. I really think that it
    behooves certain power elites (and they are elites) to make it about
    gentrification. The worst part is it took political energy away from the push
    to keep HP Beach, which is the real loss for the neighborhood.

  • Ana TheBaker

    excellent article

  • vprima

    caitlin, your experience mirrors mine. They oversold last year, resulting in some scary overcrowding, especially at the fenced off extrance/exit points to stages. Otherwise, my complements to their bookers-the bands are terrific. Why can’t Chicago just build a dedicated fairground for rock shows, like they do for Milwaukee fest? Parks should be for park stuff, not used as private venues. I also hate seeing Lolla completely take Petrillo and much of Grant Pk away from public use for 2 wks.

  • Vae Victis

    “the annual Puerto Rican Festival offered a clear contrast — it stretches across the park with music, food, and cultural activities, but it remains free and open to all.

    HA! That’s a HUGE laugh. Do you actually believe that?

    I wonder if that guy who got beaten with a flagpole(you’ll never guess which flag was attached) and shot 3 in the back times a few years ago believes that?

  • Dingus

    PR fest is open to all…except people who want to enjoy the park…without band stages, carnivals, etc. PR fest and Riot Fest are more the same than they care to admit.

  • 4JorgeSchuldt

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