LINCOLN SQUARE — Each year, Winnemac Park lights up with an unofficial July 4 fireworks show, one of the more prominent unauthorized displays around the city.
The event draws big crowds of residents and families, but at least one neighbor is pushing city officials to stop the illegal “wink and a nod” event and the area’s alderman is urging people not to set off any fireworks this year without a proper permit.
Russ Klettke, of Bowmanville, initially thought of the fireworks as a minor nuisance because of the explosions that frightened his dog. After living in the area for 16 years, he went to the show for the first time last year with out-of-town relatives.
But the people setting off the fireworks were “amateurs,” he said, with little regard for their own safety or that of spectators. At least one lit rocket accidentally launched sideways, flying near the crowd instead of into the sky, he said.
While he’s not seen anyone injured at Winnemac Park, Klettke cited news reports of people hurt or killed setting off illegal fireworks in Chicago during previous holidays. Klettke also says people with PTSD or autism, as well as children, pets and wildlife are negatively impacted by the explosions at the event.
“We went and we left less than an hour after we arrived because we felt we were in danger,” Klettke said. “There’s no crowd control. There are multiple sites within the park where people are launching things. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.”
Since then, Klettke filed complaints with Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), the park district and police to get the event shut down. He even launched an online survey late last year for other neighbors to weigh in.
According to the figures Klettke provided, half of the 531 people who responded said they like the annual fireworks display at Winnemac Park as is. About 20 percent said they liked the fireworks but want the event to be professionally managed, and 30 percent said they preferred no show at all or something other than fireworks for the holiday.
Robert Kastigar is a fan of the fireworks and said he plans to ride his bike to the park Sunday for the show. He disagrees with Klettke’s description of the event and says to him it’s appeared pretty well organized for such an ad hoc event put on by the neighborhood.
“There are lots of fireworks and noise at the park but the whole city is going to be full of noise and fireworks that day anyways. Honestly, if you have a dog or something you’re probably better off getting out of town all together around the Fourth of July to avoid the noise,” he said.
Vasquez reminded neighbors in a recent newsletter most fireworks are illegal in Chicago. The city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which fields 911 and 311 calls, reported a 700 percent increase in fireworks complaints in 2020, he said.
The only fireworks allowed in the city are glowworms, smoke bombs and party poppers, Vasquez said. In addition to endangering their users, the loud, sudden noises from fireworks also negatively impact veterans who have experienced trauma, senior citizens, pets and area wildlife.
He stressed that while unofficial fireworks displays may be popular with neighbors, as evidenced by Klettke’s survey, he can’t support an illegal, dangerous annual event in his ward.
“It is in that context that I urge our neighbors to be mindful and stop any fireworks activity this year. I am also concerned about the congregation of people at July 4th celebrations and the potential spread of COVID-19, especially in regards to activity that has previously occurred at Winnemac Park,” he said, in the letter. “In the past, there may have been a wink and a nod to such activity, but that can’t continue under our new normal.”
Vasquez said Thursday the city does have a legal process for neighbors to put on a fireworks display. A fireworks license requires neighbors to use city-sanctioned fireworks vendors, and get support from community stakeholders as well as the Chicago Fire Department.
The process also includes the cost of insurance, on-site inspections by the fire department, enforcement of an 11 p.m. curfew, letters of consent from the local alderman and property owner where the show is happening, among other things. The added steps bring better safety and peace of mind to the event and minimizes the risk of someone being injured, Vasquez said.
“If the neighbors who support fireworks at Winnemac chose to go that legal route, we could have an event that’s more controlled, safe and doesn’t go super late into the evening,” he said. “There is a path to that. But unfortunately, we don’t know who the folks are that are actively involved in the unofficial, illegal fireworks at Winnemac. We’d like to have that conversation with them about that.”
Vasquez also asked neighbors to urge those setting off fireworks to be more mindful of how the loud noises impact other residents, and to report fireworks to police so there is a record of where activity is occurring.
The police department has put out flyers and tweets reminding people that fireworks are dangerous, to consider alternatives to celebrating the Fourth of July, that parents can be held criminally responsible if they allow children to use fireworks, and to call 911 to report it.
But even when Klettke says he’s complained to police in the past, they’ve said they’re too busy to stop people from setting off illegal fireworks.
“I don’t feel I should be put in the situation of telling people what they should do. We have community leaders and organizations, a police department, the park district. All the pieces are there to say do not violate the law,” Klettke said. “Why do I, an individual, have to be the one to get involved in this? It’s consumed a God awful amount of my time and [psychological] energy.”
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