Green Space for Greenbacks: The Debate Over Private Fests in Public Parks

Sharaya Tindal, Nance Klehm, and Sara Heymann stand in a bare patch at Douglas Park eight months after Riot Fest. Photo: John Greenfield

[Note: This Chicago Reader article lies a bit outside Streetsblog Chicago’s usual wheelhouse of transportation and livable streets topics, but since it covers an important local public space issue, I thought it might be of interest to Streetsblog readers.]

On a recent Monday afternoon, members of a group called Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park guided a visitor around the west-side green space they say was disfigured by the three-day music festival last fall. Eight months after the fest, the south end of Douglas Park—bounded by Ogden, Albany, 19th, and California and occupied by soccer and baseball fields—still displays tire ruts and wide, muddy areas where heavy foot traffic from 135,000 festgoers tore up the turf. Although the tour took place days after the last rainstorm, pools of standing water remained on the compacted dirt.

The fest debuted in Douglas Park last September after it was ousted from Humboldt Park, where it had taken place since 2012. Humboldt Park residents complained that the event turned that park’s turf into a mud zone that Riot Fest organizers never properly repaired, prompting 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado to pull his support for the concert.

Members of Concerned Citizens say Douglas Park has experienced the same problems. In the immediate aftermath of the concert, much of the south end of the park was fenced off until November while crews hired by the festival made repairs—but the activists say it’s obvious the green space remains in disrepair.

“This park is not structured to receive that many people and maintain its health,” says nearby resident Nance Klehm, a veteran landscaper and sustainability advocate. “There’s no Band-Aid to that. It needs to be restructured, and the soil needs to be reengineered.”

Concerned Citizens activists say that Riot Fest should never have come to Douglas Park. They claim that Riot Fest, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Park District, and the local aldermen made the decision to move the event to the park with little or no input from the primarily African-American and Latino residents of the neighboring North Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods.

They’ve hosted public meetings on the subject, collected signatures on petitions against the fest, held protests, and have lobbied their aldermen and the Park District about the matter. At a 24th Ward community meeting in June 2015, the first to take place after it was announced Riot Fest would be held in Douglas Park, Concerned Citizens members displayed signs reading “A 3-day binge is not an economic development plan” and “Lawndale is a community, not a commodity.”

“It’s disrespectful to tell two communities that something is going to happen in their park instead of asking them to let you have it in their park,” says UIC grad student Sharaya Tindal, who helped form Concerned Citizens in spring 2015 because she was worried about the impact Riot Fest would have on Douglas Park.

The group is upset that the festival will return to Douglas Park on September 16-18. “This concert is not for this community,” Tindal says. “It’s not even for us, and we are being locked out of our own park.”

It’s a growing refrain in Chicago. As large-scale music festivals—Riot Fest, Lollapalooza, North Coast, Pitchfork—have proliferated throughout the city over the last decade, aldermen, community groups, and concerned residents have begun questioning the rationale behind turning over public parks to private entities for much of the summer. And with repairs sometimes stretching into the fall, popular areas of parkland can remain closed for much of the peak season.

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.

  • Rose Lynch

    The concert on Cricket Hill last year destroyed part of the running trail with the equipment they dragged up there. Then it became rutted, channels for water developed and its now a “knee breaker” for sure – you have to leave the trail and go around it..

    Please leave the Montrose area alone – its very nice the way it is and doesn’t need thousands traipsing up there. A week ago it was kite flying and now half their kites are stuck up in the surrounding trees – who will go up there to retrieve them? Do the trees have to “wear” them for the rest of their lives? Or remnants of them?

    Same thing applies to that group of speeding cyclists who use the hill area as part of their racing routine in the fall – makes a total rutted mess of the grass and they are a menace to walkers and runners. Do they pay to take it over?

    There – now I feel better! Thanks

  • johnaustingreenfield

    On the bright side, Montrose Beach has been home to the fabulous #TacoTrike — a three-wheeled, human-powered vehicle with a grill in the back that produces some of the best tacos in town.

  • Anne A

    There is a transportation aspect to this issues that you didn’t discuss – the effects of all these big festivals on transportation. If I had known how many of these festivals we would get and how much of an impact they would have on transit between the far south side and the rest of the city, I probably would not have moved to Beverly. On those weekends, I end up feeling trapped on the south side – unable to get to north or west side destinations, so I either stay south and avoid Metra, or go somewhere by car, staying far away from the Loop.

    Metra’s Rock Island line is unbearable on many of the festival weekends – overcrowded and loud, with service delays due to the crowds. Other Metra lines suffer the same problems. CTA trains and buses can be somewhat better, since they run much more frequently, but at a cost of longer travel times. Then I still have to deal with crowds downtown.

    Our hub and spoke transit system gets clogged and broken on big festival weekends. We desperately need a reliable circle route around the Loop.

  • Pat

    You don’t even need a festival to have a terrible rutted multi-use trail!

    Take a look at the gravel path in Lincoln Park parallel to Cannon after (and for days) a rain shower. It’s pathetic.

  • Festival organizers are increasingly bold, “give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile” seems to be today’s operational principle.

    Arguments about park damage and reduced accessibility, both during the events and for weeks or months afterwards, are completely valid. Revenues generated need to take those externalities, including Anne’s excellent point about the ripple impact on transportation, into account. This is clearly not happening at the moment.

    However, a word of caution – these are public parks and belong to the entire City. While I fully agree with the concerns expressed here, the “it’s our park” language and logic can and will be used to extend similar ownership to the
    residents surrounding Grant Park, Lincoln Park, etc.

  • Christopher Murphy

    liTERALly the get off my lawn crowd. I really tired of these all or nothing NIMBYs, all the parks are for all of Chicago. We all need to share and we there should be a solution if both sides are willing to engage in honest bargaining.

  • ohsweetnothing

    So now the new narrative is that Maldonado pushed Riot Fest out of Humboldt at the behest of the community and not out of political spite? Hmm, ok.