LINCOLN SQUARE — Several hundred people gathered Monday in Winnemac Park to set off fireworks for the Fourth of July.
The unsanctioned event happens every year, littering the park with debris and filling the sky with smoke. Beloved by participants and hated by some neighbors, the tradition is also preventing the park from getting turf upgrades it badly needs, the area’s alderman said.
The unofficial “show” at the park, 5100 N. Leavitt St., is one of the most prominent, amateur fireworks displays on the North Side. But this year, Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) urged people to stay off the fields in advance of the holiday.
Vasquez has been trying to get the Chicago Park District to sign off on upgrades to the park’s fields for months, as Amundsen High School’s baseball team and others have struggled to find a place to practice thanks to the muddy and often-unusable fields.
Chicago Park District officials would have signed off on a much larger turf upgrade at Winnemac Park if people stopped the unsanctioned July 4 fireworks show, Vasquez said. Due to the ongoing damage to the field, the department only approved turf for the infield of the baseball diamond Amundsen uses, Vasquez said.
“In conversation with the Park District, one of the things they’re not comfortable with is adding turf to the outfield or more than just the infield because of potential damage to it caused by fireworks,” Vasquez said. “Their concern is investing so much money on the front end but then it gets damaged because of fireworks. The park district doesn’t have the funding to keep doing repairs from that.”
Even aside from the field issues, the celebration has become increasingly unpopular among neighbors near the park due to noise, crowds and flying, flaming debris.
At 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, neighbor Russ Klettke said the park was littered with debris. By 11 a.m., park crews and other neighbors like Tessa Groll had most of the mess cleaned up.
Groll carried a white trash bag and with a gloved hand picked up the leftover metal sticks from sparklers and cardboard “shrapnel.” She was also methodically removing hundreds of scattered leftover debris from a glitter firework set off near a willow tree.
“It’s like big paper sequins that are now stuck into the grass,” Groll said.
Neighbors told Block Club the crowd Monday night was smaller than in years past, but garbage and scorch marks remained Tuesday. Those who are anxious for park upgrades say the city should do something about the illegal fireworks display — not punish neighbors who want new fields due to a lack of enforcement.
“I think that’s kind of ridiculous,” Amundsen High School JV baseball head coach Craig Newman said. “You’re essentially sanctioning illegal activity and using that as an excuse for why you don’t want to put in sports turf for a number of teams, not just Amundsen, but a number of teams including park district teams who need that space to play safely.”
Winnemac Park grounds have taken a beating recently with a grub infestation and heavy rains turning the park’s baseball fields into a muddy, sloppy mess.
In April, Vasquez reached out to the Park District to figure out how tax increment financing funds could be used for new turf and drainage improvements, but the Park District only approved turf for the infield of the baseball diamond Amundsen uses, Vasquez said.
“The Chicago Park District is in the initial stages of discussion about the installation of artificial turf at Winnemac Park. As part of that process, we identify all of the factors to consider for potential installation,” said Park District spokeswoman Irene Tostado.
Amundsen parent Margaret O’Conor said she was originally told the turf expansion stalled because it was cost prohibitive, and that the smaller scope of the upgrade was meant to appease neighbors who didn’t want to lose green space in the park to artificial turf.
Only in the past week did she hear Vasquez say the annual illegal fireworks show was one of the factors that led to the Park District choosing to not install turf in the outfield Amundsen uses, she said.
“That [getting turf for the outfield] is contingent on us somehow controlling the uncontrollable is frustrating. We don’t control the unsanctioned, decades long fireworks display at the park,” O’Conor said.
All explosive devices are “strictly prohibited” on Park District property, and every year the police and fire departments put out flyers and tweets reminding people that fireworks are dangerous and illegal in Chicago.
But the rule is rarely enforced, and neither police nor Park District representatives would say what they are doing to stop the event.
Winnemac Park Advisory Council President Mike Vacala remembers when the unsanctioned fireworks show began about 40 year ago, he said.
“It was a few policemen blowing off fireworks that they confiscated from people,” Vacala said. “The one thing I kind of liked about it being at the park was that people aren’t in every alley or street corner in neighborhoods setting off fireworks. And as a retired fireman, I know a lot of fires happen that way.”
But the event became unwieldy after it was mentioned online and in newspapers, he said.
Vasquez tried to get a new, city sanctioned July 4 event to supplant Winnemac Park’s annual amateur fireworks show, but didn’t have enough time or money to put an event together this year, he said.
Still, he was glad that turnout was down — and hopeful something could be done to improve the park’s fields moving forward.
“I think the horrible incident in Highland Park, the storm, the communications we put out regarding the turf, and other factors helped,” Vasquez said of the smaller-scale display. “I had heard that it appeared to be substantially less than in years prior.”
Vacala said he’s skeptical a city-run event would deter people who want to set off illegal fireworks.
Instead, the city should just enforce its rules for once and have officers go out and confiscate the illegal fireworks, he said
“I see these guys with stacks of fireworks up against some of these baseball diamonds. Those guys probably spent a couple thousand dollars on fireworks. If police came into the park one time and just confiscated them do you think they’re going to come back next year?,” Vacala said.
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