NORTH LAWNDALE — With music fest season in full swing, North Lawndale and Little Village residents fear they may be fenced out of their neighborhoods’ main park for most of the summer.
Much of Douglass Park, which straddles the two neighborhoods, was fenced off from public use starting June 7 to prepare for the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash, ten days before the hip hop festival in the park began. Heatwave Festival will take over the park July 17-18 and Riot Fest is slated for Sept. 16-18.
The ticketed events have some residents bristling at being unable to use playgrounds, soccer fields and tracks on the park’s southern end in prime recreation season while private companies profit.
“It’s a big nuisance, the traffic, the noise, the awful people, the disruption and all of that,” resident Rebecca Wolfram said. “But to me, the No. 1 issue is the park is being taken away from the people. It’s a public park. They’re not supposed to be closing off the park so these private companies can make all their money.”
It can take up to two weeks to set up for each festival, then two weeks or more for organizers to break down stages and repair damage to the park, including trampled grass, compacted soil and tire ruts, neighbors said.
The Park District “pretends to listen, but apparently they don’t. Because they added another festival and another festival,” Wolfram said. “Almost the entire summer is ruined for people.”
The Park District “works closely” with event organizers so festivals have “minimal impact on the surrounding community and day-to-day use of the park,” spokesperson Michele Lemons said in a statement.
The massive festivals force community organizers to seek alternatives for neighborhood celebrations, sports leagues and other activities they want to have in Douglass Park.
The Summer Smash fest, happening two months earlier than in previous years, threw a wrench in some people’s plans to host cookouts and community events for Juneteenth.
The holiday marks the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to free enslaved people. Since the holiday coincides with Summer Smash, festival organizers helped fund a Juneteenth event for It Takes A Village school.
“With the size of that event, it causes other people in the community having events to celebrate Juneteenth … to have to close down or minimize their events,” said Princess Shaw, a resident who had to adjust her plans for a community event at Douglass Park due to the fest.
Some children’s sports leagues had to find new homes since the soccer pitch at Douglass Park is inaccessible for much of the season. Instead of playing at their local park, some sports leagues play at La Villita Park, about three miles south, or the turf field at Kelly High School, about four miles south in Brighton Park, local coaches and families said.
“The kids aren’t able to use the park to play ball,” said Jorge Angel, a resident who plays in an adult league and works with youth coaches. “We can’t enter the park because it’s fenced off. It’s bad. We don’t need the festivals. We don’t want it.”
Some residents who like the festivals said the events bring money into the community and organizers support local youth programs and cleanup initiatives.
Summer Smash and Riot Fest give out hundreds of free tickets to local residents, hire festival workers from the community, lead park beautification projects and donate sports equipment to local teams, organizers said.
At a recent Park District Board meeting, Charles Rice, coach of the North Lawndale Eagles’ youth football team, commended Riot Fest for helping to offset the cost of the football program. Rice was the chief of staff for former Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) and was a candidate to replace him. Lightfoot has since announced Monique Scott, Scott’s sister, is her pick to be Lawndale’s next alderperson.
“Riot Fest has been a great partner for us and supported our program,” Rice said.
Proponents also said the events bring an economic boost to the neighborhoods. Juanita Areola, who owns a property she rents on AirBnb, gets “a big spike” at the rental during festival season, she said.
“In the summer months, I look forward to the festivals because I can survive through the winter off of that,” Areola said.
Summer Smash’s festival director, Berto Solorio, said the event provides a “positive cultural and economic impact” on the communities while shining “a light on this often-overlooked area of town.”
But many who work and own businesses in the area say the festivals don’t do them any good.
Street vendor Gustavo Espinoza has been selling concessions at Douglass Park for 20 years. Most of his business comes from youth and adult sports programs at the soccer fields, but the festivals have made it difficult for him to work for weeks at a time, he said.
“I lost a lot of money,” Espinoza said. “The festival people, they kick me out. They won’t let me stay in the park. There’s three festivals. It’s between a month and a half and two months lost.”
Wolfram and other residents concerned about the private festivals at Douglass Park surveyed 17 businesses near the park, including Nino’s Tire Shop, K’s Department Store, a Dollar General, Birririeria Ocotlan, Ace Hardware and Genie’s Liquors. Only three of the business owners said they benefitted from the festival, while many more complained about the traffic caused by the fest.
Lawndale resident and artist Alexie Young is “on the fence” since the festivals “bring cultural enrichment to our neighborhood” and many residents enjoy being able to have events and activities in their own neighborhood rather than having to travel across town, she said.
But none of the festivals have adequately communicated with the community and involved residents in the planning process, and “there should be a limit” to how often the Park District allows large events to happen in the park, Young said.
“The amenities that are in that park should always be available. The track … the playgrounds should always be available. As a resident, I don’t think that it’s fair for the park to be pretty much shut down. There could be lots of other community programming taking place, especially Juneteenth weekend,” Young said.
With criticisms of the festivals growing over the years, the city needs to have a process in place so residents can voice their concerns and stop a festival from happening if it doesn’t align with the interests of residents, Young said. Many have spoken out against the festivals at Park District board meetings, but district officials confirmed the board’s approval is not needed for festivals to move forward.
“If there is an opportunity for us to say ‘no,’ what is that process? We have every right to say ‘no,'” Young said.
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