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The uprising against Riot Fest continues

Activists refuse to be silent about the festival’s occupation of Douglas Park.

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Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park meet at Freedom Square on August 2. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park meet at Freedom Square on August 2.

On August 2 at Freedom Square, a tent city raised across the street from the Chicago Police Department's Homan Square facility as a protest against police brutality, Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park held an alfresco strategy session. Local resident Sharaya Tindal outlined the group's grievances against the festival, which debuted in the west-side green space in September 2015, for 16 or so people gathered on folding chairs under a canopy.

As I reported in May, Concerned Citizens formed last year when Riot Fest relocated to Douglas Park from Humboldt Park following backlash from Humboldt residents who claimed its organizers failed to adequately repair turf damage. Concerned Citizens argued that the mostly African-American and Latino residents of neighboring North Lawndale and Little Village had been given little to no say in the matter.

At Freedom Square, Tindal discussed how foot traffic from 135,000 attendees at the 2015 festival damaged Douglas Park so badly that much of its south end was fenced off for repairs from late September to late November. Mayor Emanuel, the local aldermen, and the Chicago Park District (as well as Riot Fest itself, of course) had promised the event would bring big economic benefits to the communities. But Tindal claimed that the roughly 150 temporary jobs created didn't make a dent in the area's unemployment problem, that high vendor fees shut out small businesses, and that neighborhood retail strips saw little increase in sales during the festival weekend.

"Meanwhile the city spends extra money on transit, extra money on Streets & San, and extra money on police, and Riot Fest pays nothing for it," Tindal said. "So we pay to get overpoliced, underprotected, and shut out."

From a camp seat, Damon Williams, co­director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective (which is leading the Freedom Square occupation), voiced solidarity for Concerned Citizens in their efforts to oust the fest from the park. "We're here because people are being tortured," he said. "We're here because 70 percent of [young men in] the community have felonies. It's the most closings of public schools. So for people to be having something literally called a 'riot' here . . . "

"Thank you," said Tindal. "[What] poor taste. How disrespectful. How dare you, when people are dying. When our community has not recovered from the last riot in '68. How dare you bring your concert, your merriment, your laugh riot to our broken community."

Not everyone in the area shares that sentiment. Some locals say they appreciate that Riot Fest donates to local community organizations. Youth football coach Charles Rice told me he sees the fest as "beneficial" and said he was grateful the company provided $900 worth of beverages to the league's awards dinner. Riot Fest also donated Thanksgiving turkeys, held a Christmas toy drive, and organized a free soccer clinic for neighborhood kids with players from the Chicago Fire, among other things.

"I believe it's a positive," says Paul Norrington, a North Lawndale retiree who helped lead an unsuccessful effort to bring the Obama presidential library to the neighborhood. He adds that the fest will raise the profile of the community and spur investment. "Last time more than 130,000 people came to the area, many of whom had never been to North Lawndale or possibly even heard of it." (Tindal, on the other hand, doesn't see this influx as a good thing. She recently tweeted to rapper and 2016 festival performer Nas that Riot Fest is "a racist concert meant to gentrify a black community.")

In a statement to the Reader earlier this month, Riot Fest pointed to several initiatives meant to ensure the event "has a positive effect on both Douglas Park and its neighbors." To begin with, the company paid a $225,000 permit fee for the 2015 event into the Chicago Park District's general fund, and it will pay a similar fee this year.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request in early August, a Park District representative said that this permit fee goes into the department's general operating fund. She didn't say whether any of it was earmarked for Douglas Park, which has a $511,782 direct operating budget. At the time of the FOIA request, the Park District had not yet closed a contract with Riot Fest for 2016.

In addition to the 2015 fee, the festival has spent more than $192,000 on park repairs and improvements, and by the time this year's event rolls around it will have hosted three Douglas Park beautification volunteer work days. Riot Fest says improvements to the green space have included mulching, leveling low-lying areas, weeding, power washing, laying 30,000 square feet of sod, and grading, aerating, and seeding all fields.

The fest also held job fairs for residents of the communities surrounding Douglas Park—all positions pay $12 per hour. On the same days, the company set up a tent in the park where people who live within four blocks could register for free tickets. (A state ID and two pieces of mail were required for address verification.) There will have been three such days this year before Riot Fest begins.

These efforts could be seen as answers to activists' complaints that Riot Fest shuts out people in the neighborhoods that host it. But Concerned Citizens' Sara Heymann (who, like Tindal, lives near the park) told me her group isn't impressed. When I spoke to her this spring, she claimed that the closure of soccer and baseball fields last year resulted in the Park District losing significant revenue—she said these facilities bring in $40,000 to $50,000 in permit fees annually.

Volunteers spread mulch at a Douglas Park beautification event in August. - COURTESY RIOT FEST
  • Courtesy Riot Fest
  • Volunteers spread mulch at a Douglas Park beautification event in August.

For my article in May, I confirmed the fall 2015 field closures with Park District officials but failed to run the $40,000-$50,000 figure by the department. While I didn't state Concerned Citizens' claim as fact, I apologize for this oversight. Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner didn't respond to a more recent query about the accuracy of this number.

A handout distributed at the Freedom Square meeting in August includes two other claims the Park District says are inaccurate. It states that "Douglas Park lost nearly $40,000 in revenue from permits" due to field damage and that "Douglas Park is no longer issuing permits to use the natural turf baseball or soccer fields for the fall 2016 season." Heymann said the handout was a group effort by Concerned Citizens members.

Maxey-Faulkner indicated that the agency did, in fact, lose some revenue last fall due to Riot Fest-related wear and tear. However, she said the "nearly $40,000" figure was "way off base" because the cost of renting the fields ranges from free to, on rare occasions, $55 per hour for adult for-profit groups. "The average rental income for the grass fields typically would not exceed $500 during that [two-and-a-half-month] time period," she said. Maxey-­Faulkner added that "Douglas Park has not discontinued the issuance of permits for the grass fields this season."

After I shared Maxey-Faulkner's statement with Heymann, who's a member of the Douglas Park Advisory Council, she and a fellow DPAC member went over their notes from a February 2016 advisory council meeting and confirmed that someone there—they're not sure who—stated that the fields bring in $40,000 to $50,000 per year. Heymann conceded, "I possibly did mishear how much [revenue] was lost."

But Heymann said that, after July's DPAC meeting, she asked Douglas Park supervisor Angela Sallis whether permits would be issued for the grass fields this fall, and Sallis told her they would not be.

Heymann said the field closures caused more than just financial harm—neighborhood youth weren't able to use their local playing fields. She also argued that Riot Fest had done a half-assed job of repairing the turf damage. She provided photos of a section of southern Douglas Park that was fenced off between late May and early July for resodding. The images suggest that some of the new grass died before all the sod pieces could grow together.

Heymann added that at a March meeting of the Douglas Park Advisory Council, Riot Fest and 24th Ward alderman Michael Scott, a festival booster, agreed to host a vendor workshop for local businesses and send the council all the information about becoming a vendor. "Neither happened," Heymann said.

"That's not the case," responded Scott, explaining that a community meeting for vendors took place on the evening of July 7 at Nichols Tower, just north of Freedom Square. "It was not as well attended as I would have liked it to be," he acknowledged. "I sent the information to the [Douglas Park Advisory Council] president and vice president. I wasn't going to send it to every member."

A Riot Fest spokesperson added that, while the usual vendor fee is roughly $3,000, for the first time this year the company is waiving the fee for businesses in the neighboring 12th, 24th, and 28th Wards. (Local vendors must still pay rental fees to the festival for equipment.) The spokesperson did not immediately disclose how many neighborhood businesses have applied for spots at the fest.

Informed that there had in fact been a vendor workshop, Heymann remained skeptical. "I'm wondering if they told a few select businesses about this to make it look like they had community engagement," she said. She also suspects that only certain residents were informed of the opportunity to register for free Riot Fest tickets.

Heymann added that she's seen almost no mention of these initiatives on social media, though she follows the La Villita Facebook page as well as accounts maintained by Alderman Scott, 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas (who didn't respond to a request for comment), the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, the Cermak Chamber of Commerce, and the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council. "I hope the community gets benefits, but if no one knows about them, then what's the point?"

Heymann reiterated Concerned Citizens' grievances against Riot Fest from a social-justice standpoint, and said the group started a petition drive against the event this summer—it's collected between 400 and 500 signatures so far. But she left the door open to acceptance of the festival.

"If they spent the big money that the park would need to handle this event—adding a sprinkler system, a new drainage system, new engineered soil and grass that can handle high-impact use, and made it so that the park was not closed for the entire fall . . . I would rethink my position on Riot Fest."  v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

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