Riot Fest Given Approval for Douglass Park, But Debate Over Mega-Events in Chicago Parks Rages On

Ald. Monique Scott (center) celebrates the Park District board’s approval of Riot Fest. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)Ald. Monique Scott (center) celebrates the Park District board’s approval of Riot Fest. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

Riot Fest will be coming to Douglass Park in September.

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Organizers of the three-day concert event received permit approval from the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, over the objections of opponents who’ve campaigned for more than a year to keep the festival out of the park.

Board President Myetie Hamilton said the more stringent permit review process put in place in 2022 — which gave the board, not Park District staff, the final say over mega-events — had worked.

Pointing to the myriad concessions Riot Fest agreed to as part of a mandated community engagement process, Hamilton said: “There’s a marked difference and improvement, and what stands out for me particularly are the opportunities for economic mobility within this community — local hiring, local talent, local vendors — and as part of this continuing engagement beyond the fest. I’m very encouraged there.”

Ald. Monique Scott (24th Ward), who was elected to her first full term in April, threw her support behind Riot Fest, marshaling busloads of residents wearing “Beyond the Fest” T-shirts.

“That’s the community,” Scott told WTTW News, pointing to the group, many of them youngsters. And it was on their behalf, she said, that she backed the festival.

Riot Fest has promised to provide internships within its organization to local youth, giving the teens a glimpse at careers, be it booking talent or working as a sound technician, that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise, she said.

Speaking to commissioners, Scott said that beyond creating economic and employment opportunities for residents, the fest paints North Lawndale in a different light.

“With thousands and thousands of visitors and tourists coming into the community, Riot Fest counters the stereotype that North Lawndale isn’t a good place to live, work or play,” said Scott.

Her one caveat would be to have any Park District funds generated by Riot Fest funneled back specifically to Douglass Park rather than into the district’s general coffers. It was a proposal Hamilton said she believed in as well.

Opponents of the fest remained staunch in their position that the fest poses a health and safety hazard to the community, given the location of nearby hospitals.

Apart from the issue of emergency vehicles having to work around road closures during the festival, the noise shakes the walls of the hospitals and keeps patients from being able to rest, said Susan Mullin.

“We’re talking about people’s lives,” said Mullin. “I can’t imagine people dying and the walls shaking.”

Rebecca Wolfram, an outspoken critic of Riot Fest, said the Park District’s approval of the event’s permit was “really, really depressing.”

“It was pretty disheartening for the Park District to accept on faith” all of Riot Fest’s promises, Wolfram said. Promises, she added, that would do nothing to solve the problem of having 50,000 people per day descend on a hospital zone.

Both Mullin and Wolfram said Riot Fest organizers had put on a full-court press to win over community organizations after the opposition began getting traction.

“They’re buying the park,” Wolfram said.

But others argued that the wooing of community organizations was precisely the kind of engagement the Park District had been looking for from event organizers.

Hector Escobar, president of the Cermak Road Chamber of Commerce, said he had initially been against the fest, but after meeting with the Riot Fest team, he changed his mind.

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” said Escobar.

Organizers said they would help restore a dozen bronze statues in Pilsen, according to Escobar, and would also lend their expertise to next year’s Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Hamilton made it clear that the board will be watching to see whether Riot Fest keeps all of its commitments and promises.

“If there’s been disrespect in the past ... acknowledge it ... you own it ... and then you do better,” she said. “We’re also looking to (Riot Fest) to lean in in a deep way. I think that is a recipe for deepening an authentic relationship.”

Having pushed for the denial of the Riot Fest permit, Denise Ferguson was among those who disagreed with Wednesday’s vote by the board. But the months and months of advocacy had forced two other festivals — Heatwave and Summer Smash — out of Douglass Park, she said. And it had brought the Riot Fest organizers to the table, winning promised improvements to the event’s management.

Now comes the work of mending the rift within the community between the pro- and anti-Riot Fest factions.

“When we walk out of this room, we’re going to still love each other,” Ferguson said.

Fight Not Over

The fight over mega-events in public parks hasn’t been limited to Riot Fest.

Residents of the Belmont Cragin community have been up in arms over Re:SET Concert Series, scheduled for June 23-25 in Riis Park.

Because the Park District board’s permit review process is limited to events expecting 10,000 or more daily attendees, the smaller Re:SET wasn’t subject to the same scrutiny or community engagement requirements.

Shortly after Re:SET’s organizers began promoting the event — news of which caught community members by surprise — strong opposition arose, including from the area’s two new City Council members.

A recent two-hour closed-door meeting between Re:SET opposition leaders and Park District administrators, including CEO and General Superintendent Rosa Escareño, did little to diffuse the situation.

Speaking during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s board meeting, community members who had been present at the session with Escareño characterized her as dismissive, which she said had not been her intent.

She was simply being straightforward about the realities of turning back the clock on event happening in a week and half, Escareño said.

The controversy over Re:SET highlights the need to perhaps put a more robust review process in place for smaller events, Hamilton said.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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