NORTH LAWNDALE — Riot Fest has parted ways with the contractor it tasked with organizing the festival after a community meeting enflamed tensions between fest organizers and West Side residents.
The Aug. 2 meeting was planned by the festival organizer, Scott Fisher, as part of community engagement requirements mandated by the Park District for major events. But rather than reassuring neighbors living near Douglass Park of Riot Fest management’s commitment to the neighborhood, the meeting only reinforced neighbors’ misgivings about the event.
Neighbors complained that the meeting wasn’t a genuine attempt to address people’s issues with the park being privatized and closed to the public for weeks at a time so festival owners can profit, said Karina Solano, who lives a few blocks from Douglass Park.
Rather than answering questions on the festival’s safety plan or taking notes about people’s gripes with the festival, Fisher made several rude remarks toward meeting attendees and “laughed in our faces” when people voiced issues, Solano said.
At one point, according to the Chicago Reader’s coverage of the meeting, Fisher questioned whether the residents could “understand pure English.”
“I didn’t feel like our dignity and our time was respected. It felt like a mockery,” Solano said. “It doesn’t make sense to have a community meeting if nothing we say is actually going to matter or change the way Riot Fest is happening.”
Festival organizers also did not effectively notify residents the meeting would be happening, resulting in only a handful of neighbors attending, Solano said.
There was no Spanish translation available at the meeting, even though many neighbors are primarily Spanish speakers. The meeting also took place in the early afternoon “at a time that was not accessible for working-class community members,” Solano said.
“I wish this meeting happened at a later time with more notice so that my neighbors could have come,” Solano said. “I didn’t even know if that meeting was happening or not. I live near the park but I never actually got anything in the mail about it.”
Some people living near Douglass Park have taken issue with large music festivals in the area ever since Riot Fest relocated there in 2015 after being pushed out of Humboldt Park by residents with the support of Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th).
But their displeasure mounted when the city allowed two additional music festivals to come to the West Side park: the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash and Heatwave Festival. The new events worsened issues of crowding, noise and extensive damage to the park, neighbors said.
With three massive festivals, some residents feel it is unfair the southern half of Douglass Park is fenced off and closed to the public for weeks at a time.
“It makes me feel totally disrespected, totally used. Even the things that are public and supposed to be for the neighborhood are totally not,” said Susan Mullen, who lives near the park.
Riot Fest’s management is aware of the problems people have with the event and are working “to do everything to mitigate those concerns and remain a positive asset to the community,” said spokesperson Heather West.
Each year, Riot Fest gives away as many as 750 free tickets to residents living within a few blocks of Douglass Park. Riot Fest also organizes several beautification initiatives throughout the year that bring in volunteers to clean up the park. The fest also recruits locally for temporary jobs doing security, setting up and breaking down stages and equipment.
The botched community meeting Fisher hosted “was scheduled without authorization” from Riot Fest management, West said. Fisher, who was contracted to organize Riot Fest, quit and is is no longer in charge of running the event, West said.
“We don’t condone the tone and apologize to the Douglass Park community as it is not reflective of RF’s values or any of our past work in the park. We respect the concerns of the neighbors and want to make sure they are heard and addressed,” West said in a statement.
Calls to Fisher’s company were not returned.
In the coming weeks, Riot Fest will plan another community meeting “to demonstrate our continual effort in remaining good neighbors,” West said. “As important, we will take feedback from all residents and implement their suggestions when possible.”
Park District officials said in a statement that festival organizers are required to have a community engagement plan including posting notices of the event and hosting a public meeting. But organizers do not need to get the support or approval of the community in order for the city to issue a permit allowing a park to be privatized for a large event, said spokesperson Michele Lemons.
The Park District “has always strongly encouraged organizers of large-scale events to engage with and garner support from local community leaders before submitting their application. This is not a requirement to submit a permit application,” Lemons said in a statement.
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