Riot Fest serves as a case study on community inclusion

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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.