Photo courtesy of Unete

While Riot Fest organizers are in the thick of preparations, residents are bracing themselves for another wave of crowds, noise, traffic, and litter following festivals Summer Smash and Heatwave—in what has amounted to a whole summer without proper access to their neighborhood park. 

Riot Fest is one of the largest independently owned music festivals in the U.S. and brings an array of well-known performers of varying genres including punk, hip-hop, rock, alternative, and metal. Around 40,000 people attend on each of its three days. Originally held indoors at Congress Theater, it moved to Humboldt Park, where the outdoor music festival was ousted by residents in 2014 after heavy rain and foot traffic damaged sections of the park. In addition to the damage, residents said that areas of the park were shut down for months after the festival, rendering soccer and baseball fields unusable. Event organizers had to pay $150,000 in repairs and find another location.

Douglass Park started hosting the festival in 2015, and similar complaints immediately followed. People from surrounding communities such as North Lawndale and Little Village say they were not consulted about its arrival. Local neighbors’ groups like Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest and Unete La Villita say they want Riot Fest out of their neighborhood, arguing that music festivals do not benefit the community and that public parks should not be privatized and fenced off. 

Two other festivals have since arrived at Douglass Park: Summer Smash, which debuted in 2018, and Heatwave, which debuted this July. Neither festival sought community approval beyond aldermanic support. Summer Smash was founded by media company Lyrical Lemonade and production label SPKRBX. The media company behind Heatwave is Auris Presents.

Douglass Park is split between two alderpersons: 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas, who just won the Democratic nomination for a county seat, and 24th Ward Alderperson Monique Scott, who was recently appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to take over the seat after the resignation of her brother, Michael Scott. Unete La Villita’s research shows that SPKRBX donated $7,500 to groups supporting Michael Scott and $12,500 to groups supporting Cardenas between June 2019 and July 2021. The group said Riot Fest and its founder Michael Petryshyn have also donated more than $40,000 to Cardenas and Cardenas-related PACs in recent years. 

Cardenas and Scott’s offices did not respond to the Weekly’s requests for comment.

The festival days themselves are not the only times the park is closed to the public; it is also closed for weeks prior to and after each festival, to allow time for setting up and taking down stages, booths, and other infrastructure. All together, residents will have been fenced off from the south part of Douglass Park for most of the summer. 

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Gilbert Velez lives across the street from Douglass Park and said he can’t be comfortable in his own yard because of all the noise. Despite the fact that his building has thermal paned windows, the noise from the festivals is still overwhelming. “They have different sound stages going on, and I guess once it’s all combined, the sound bounces off my walls and off into the yard—it just sounds like one loud ‘boom boom boom’ constantly,” he said.

Velez added that parking is a big issue, with festival goers taking up a lot of the residential parking, including permit parking, which residents pay for. 

Griselda Hernandez’s family owns the Teloloapan Grocery on the corner of 20th and California, and Hernandez said that a lot of their customers are kept away by the traffic. Teloloapan sells items from Guerrero, so their customers sometimes come from different neighborhoods to seek their products: “From the South Side of Chicago, the North Side of Chicago, even from the suburbs,” Hernandez said. “There are people who come from out of state, and it gets hard for them to get to our store when there’s a lot of traffic and street closings.”

According to some residents, the festival does a good job of picking up trash after the festival is over. The festival has offered free tickets to volunteers in exchange for their time spent cleaning up the park through their Douglass Park Beautification Initiative. “That’s been pretty good,” Velez said. “After the concert, they have cleanup crews that do that.”

Riot Fest gives out limited free tickets to residents who live a few blocks from Douglass Park, and some members of the community take full advantage of that. Tanya Gutierrez said these festivals have given her and her family of five the chance to attend concerts they wouldn’t normally be able to afford; general admission tickets to Riot Fest range from $109 to $114 per day and $300 for a three-day pass. Gutierrez also loves that the festival gives her the opportunity to expose her children to different types of music. 

While Gutierrez has witnessed some of her neighbors making some extra income by selling food or water to people coming in and out of the neighborhood, other residents argue that that’s not the case for everyone. There aren’t a lot of businesses on Ogden, the traffic changes during the festival make the businesses on California hardly accessible and general admission ticket holders are not allowed reentry throughout the day, so they’re not spending much outside of the festival. Local businesses said they are also not among the vendors inside.

Linda Mota, co-owner of Vista Hermosa, a Mexican restaurant on the corner of 21st and California, was initially supportive of Riot Fest. “The first year that Riot Fest began, we were excited for the new opportunity. I printed a sign that said ‘Welcome Riot Festers’ and hung it outside my storefront window and got cited for it.” 

Mota said that while they did get a lot of diners in the festival’s first year, in the following years it has only hurt their business. “We are located on California Avenue right off of Cermak. The city has been closing off California Avenue and won’t allow traffic to go through,” she said. She added that local politicians are not present. They don’t offer any assistance, and residents’ concerns are rarely addressed. 

Mota said if she had any say in how the festivals were run, she’d find a way to incorporate surrounding businesses in some way so that they could also benefit from the crowds, such as handing out “coupons inviting festivalgoers to go to our businesses, or maybe change the foot traffic so it’s led toward our businesses and not away from us. There is so much that can be done to make everyone happy,” she said. 

Riot Fest hires residents to work before, during and after the festival in positions like general labor, ground maintenance, and trash removal, with positions paying between $17 and $18.50 an hour, according to its website. However, community resident Princess Shaw argued that that’s not enough contribution to the community. “For two days? How is anyone going to survive off of two days worth of work? That’s not economic development,” she said. 

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The Chicago Park District told the Weekly that only half of the park is occupied during Riot Fest. According to Communications Director Michele Lemons, “To minimize the impact on the community’s day to day use of the park during a festival, the District maintains public access to the north end of the park (north of Ogden), the west artificial turf field, running track and playgrounds. The athletic fields between Sacramento Boulevard and Farrar Drive and the tennis courts lie within the festival footprint and are temporarily closed to the public during festival operations.”

According to Lemons, there were changes implemented since the festival’s move from Humboldt Park. “Organizers of large events must submit a Site Restoration Agreement and are responsible for restoring the park to its pre-festival condition,” she said. 

But Shaw and multiple residents said that damage done to the park is never adequately repaired. “If you keep having festivals back to back to back, when are you getting in there to repair it? And by the time September comes around, it’s getting cold again. It doesn’t make sense to get ahead of the event if the grass is just going to get demolished anyway.” 

Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest has been working to demand accountability from elected officials. On Sunday, August 7, the group gathered at the Douglass Park soccer fields with food, music, and activities. Everyone in attendance—soccer players, residents, and allies from North Lawndale and Little Village—gathered to spell out “No Mega Fests!” on the grass. 

Organizers from Unete La Villita were there to show solidarity with the soccer players, whose adult and youth leagues have been compromised by the festivals. According to organizer José Manuel Almanza, Unete La Villita has been canvassing the neighborhood every year since Riot Fest was moved to Douglass Park, and the people they’ve spoken with agree it’s not the best place for the festival. “We’re out here to show them that it’s not just a handful of activists, that it’s a community that wants these music festivals out of Douglass Park,” he said. 

A representative from Riot Fest held a community meeting at Douglass Park a week earlier, though it was hardly publicized and residents felt unheard. With no Spanish interpreters to translate for the Mexican residents in the crowd, many left the meeting confused, according to Almanza. “That tells me what Riot Fest thinks…about us as a community when we’re out here trying to voice our concerns, and that is that they’re just listening, but they’re not going to do anything about it.” 

Almanza said the organization has been trying to get a meeting with both alderpersons without success. “Cardenas has not been very receptive to us. We’ve been trying to get a meeting with him. He will not meet with us, he will not schedule a meeting with us, much less listen to any of our feedback,” he said. 

Residents are fed up with the situation. They don’t want to deal with heavy traffic and parking issues or have to travel outside of their neighborhood so their children can play outside safely. Most residents just want to be included in the conversation so they can have a say in how their community parks are used. 

Jackie Serrato contributed to this story.

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Deysi Cuevas is a lifelong Southwest Side resident who lives in Pilsen and whose work focuses on issues that impact her community. She previously wrote for the Weekly about COVID-19 vaccination efforts to reach Black and brown residents.

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