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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Riot Fest Is Over, But Douglass Park Neighbors Say They Won’t Be Able To Use The Park For Weeks Due To Cleanup

Half of Douglass Park closes during music festival season, keeping sports teams and families out of the area's main park. While some neighbors are frustrated, others say it's worth the economic boost.

People enjoy the rides during the first night of Riot Fest in Douglass Park on Sept. 17, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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NORTH LAWNDALE — Riot Fest returned to Douglass Park over the weekend, delighting thousands of fans after being canceled last year because of the pandemic.

But for some West Side neighbors, the massive event means losing their neighborhood park as summery weather wanes.

With festival setup and now cleanup to break down stages and repair damage, the southern half of the park is off limits for weeks before and after the festival, forcing youth sports teams to find somewhere else to play. The northern half of the park — which has amenities like a pool, a mini-golf course, a lagoon and playgrounds — remains open. 

Neighbors fed up with Riot Fest put up posters around Douglass Park to protest how the punk, rock and alternative music event takes over the neighborhood each year, roping off park space and bringing noise, rowdy crowds, clogged traffic and parking problems.

“It’s true, we can’t go play in our park,” a cartoonish squirrel says in a poster glued to the ground outside the festival. Along the black perimeter fence surrounding festival site, a protester painted, “Where will the children play? No Riot Fest!”

“It’s not pretty, it’s not nice, and people are sick of it,” resident Rebecca Wolfram said at the Chicago Park District’s board meeting this month. “The cruelest part of this, in my opinion, is how vendors who work at sporting events at the park are forced out along with the sports, effectively losing their jobs.”

Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club
Posters have appeared around Douglass Park in protest against Riot Fest and other private events that keep residents from using the public park for extended periods.

Riot Fest grew from three days in previous years to four days between Thursday and Sunday. Residents had no chance to give their input about the longer event.

The same area in the park hosted hip-hop festival Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash in August, also keeping much of Douglass Park cordoned off from families, children, sports teams and youth programs for a large chunk of the summer, residents say.

“We’re tired of what we see as the continued privatization of a park, that leaves it severely damaged and also limits its use for residents for months after the festival,” resident Rachel Azzarello said at the Park District’s meeting.

Ernie Alvarez, who coaches elementary and middle school soccer at Douglass Park, said the youth teams get displaced for up to three weeks per festival.

“We have to scramble around to find other parks that will give us permits to let us play,” Alvarez said. “The little kids, they play on the fields where the stages are at that get destroyed. That was the whole fall that we were not allowed to use the fields.”

A Riot Fest spokesperson declined to comment.

Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club
Graffiti in Douglass Park calls for the city to stop allowing Riot Fest to be hosted at the public park.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said several parks in the area have recently been renovated with fields for teams to use, which helps minimize impact on local teams and programs.

La Villita Park, about 3 miles south, opened in 2014 with two turf fields and four grass athletic fields. A turf field was built at the Kelly High School about 4 miles south in Brighton Park when it was renovated in 2015. McKinley Park, also about 4 miles away, has several soccer fields, Cardenas said.

The alderman’s office supports youth sports teams by helping them find places to practice and play games and by helping them pay for jerseys, trophies and fees, Cardenas said.

“We’ve added a tremendous amount of amenities throughout the communities for enjoyment,” Cardenas said.

Some signs protesting Riot Fest criticized Cardenas for greenlighting the festival and receiving tens of thousands in campaign donations from organizers. His support for the festival isn’t due to the donations, but because of the economic impact it has on the neighborhood, Cardenas said.

“We’re always going to have accusations about people giving me money,” Cardenas said. “I take the criticism. I understand it. But all these neighborhoods that have the events, they’re also for the benefit of the community so the community can be well and healthy.”

Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club
Posters put up around Riot Fest reflect the frustrations many residents have toward being fenced out of their own public park.

Cardenas said he has received positive feedback from some residents who feel the festival is a chance to “enjoy the parks in ways they haven’t done before,” he said.

Sao Alvarez and his family “look forward to it every year” because Riot Fest is a chance to bring excitement into the area, meet people and earn money selling food and drinks on the street. The festival can also help the Park District fund amenities and programs at Douglass Park, he said.

The practice of allowing private companies to profit by using public land has gotten the Park District in hot water elsewhere in the city. This summer, critics shredded the city’s plan to allow Amazon to install delivery lockers in over 100 public parks, including one blocking a narrow sidewalk. Amazon will pay the Park District at most $137,000 to place the lockers for the first year.

“It generates revenue for the city, which sometimes cuts down on our taxes. It’s a business,” Sao Alvarez said.

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