NORTH LAWNDALE — Douglass Park has sweeping fields, prairie habitats that attract hundreds of colorful birds and magnificent willow trees towering over the edge of the park’s lagoon.
But it has seen better days, neighbors said.
The southern half of Douglass Park has been damaged by large crowds and heavy equipment brought in for a series of massive music festivals. The fields have been trampled, leaving the grass dead and soil compacted. Portions of the grass turf have been torn up by stage equipment and vehicles, with tire marks left in the ground. Trash is strewn across the grounds, and broken glass bottles remain scattered across the athletic field and landscaping.
Despite the pleas of hundreds of Lawndale and Little Village residents, Douglass Park will remain in this state until after the summer ends.
Though the season’s first festival for Douglass Park was the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash on June 17, the damage there will not be repaired until after Riot Fest in the fall, “when growing conditions for grass are most favorable,” said Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons.
Neighbors of the park have called on the city to stop fencing out residents for weeks of the summer since Riot Fest relocated there in 2015. But two more festivals have been added since then: Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash in 2019 and Heatwave Festival in 2022. That’s further reduced access to the park for families, youth programs and athletic teams, some neighbors have said.
With the area remaining damaged for the entirety of the summer, residents can’t enjoy the whole park even after the private festivals take the fences down and the park reopens to the public, said Little Village resident Susan Mullen.
“It’s the entire summer season. With the few days you can get in, there’s still garbage, there’s still machinery, it’s still torn up. It’s very different from having your park back. It’s a reminder that it’s not your park, actually,” Mullen said.
Local soccer teams that have used Douglass Park to practice and play games for years have had to move to other parks since the pitch has been fenced off for the recent festivals, said Little Village resident Jorge Angel, who plays in an adult league. Even once the festivals are gone, the fields are still unusable, he said.
“It’s not fair. The park hasn’t been repaired at all,” Angel said. “We haven’t been able to play at all because the park is so messed up. … They left so much trash.”
When Angel’s team attempted to practice on the trashed soccer pitch following the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash, one of the players was injured by glass in the field, Angel said.
“There were a lot of pieces of glass. They were playing soccer and someone cut their hand on it,” Angel said. “They haven’t cleaned the park at all. It’s only people who use the park who have cleaned it up.”
Festival organizers do have cleanup events and offer perks to those living near the park. Riot Fest also organizes several beautification initiatives throughout the year that bring in volunteers to clean up the park and improve the landscaping. Lyrical Lemonade also organizes park cleanups.
Each year, Riot Fest gives away as many as 750 tickets to residents living within a few blocks of Douglass Park. And the fest recruits locally for temporary jobs doing security, setting up and breaking down stages and equipment.
Festival organizers are required to foot the bill for repairs to restore park grounds to how they were prior to the event. Repairs following last year’s Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash cost about $85,000, and prior Riot Fest repairs have cost upwards of $100,000, according to Park District records.
Summer Smash spokesperson Trey Hicks said that while “it is not totally fair to insinuate that Summer Smash is solely responsible for damages to Douglass Park,” festival organizers are committed to complying with the Park District’s rules for repairing the park.
Heatwave organizers could not be reached for comment.
“While we work with event organizers to ensure their operations minimally impact site conditions, weather can also be a factor. In addition, wear and tear is normal for any park with a high volume of daily usage,” Lemons said.
It is unfair that the Park District allows private corporations to have first dibs on the park, rather than the residents who live in the community, Angel said. Even worse is that residents were never consulted on whether they wanted the festivals in the first place, and there is no official process for the community to have a festival removed, Angel said.
“I hope that through the summer something gets better. But why didn’t you ask us if we wanted the festivals? If you’d ask us, we would have said we didn’t want it,” Angel said.
Lawndale and Little Village residents have regularly appeared at Park District Board meetings for years to ask for the music festival permits to be denied. But the festivals do not require approval from the Park District Board, and while organizers must conduct some community outreach and host a single public meeting, community approval is not required for a large event permit to be granted, Lemons said in a statement.
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, however,” Lemons said.
The expansion of the megafestivals at Douglass Park despite community outcry has left neighbors feeling “sad, unseen, ignored,” said resident Jose Almanza.
“Community members have been going to Park District Board meetings since Riot Fest came here, giving testimony to the disruption it causes. And then they added a second one, then a third one,” Almanza said. “We didn’t know who to bring these complaints to. It took us awhile to realize the Park District Board doesn’t even get to decide.”
Almanza lives near the park and often goes there to walk his dogs. Before the festivals took over the southern half of the park, he used to enjoy going there to watch soccer games, he said. He was excited when Riot Fest arrived in 2015 — until he realized how long the park would remain damaged after the festival, and that the repairs were often insufficient, he said.
“I like music, I like going to music festivals. I like seeing my favorite artists,” Almanza said. “But after the first year, the park was just damaged, and I was wondering who is going to fix it. I figured they would fix it soon, but it just never came.
“Then I saw on social media that apparently they’d already repaired it. But if they did, I don’t know what they actually fixed.”
Now that there are three festivals at Douglass spread across the summer and fall, any repairs that do happen come too late for residents to actually benefit from them, Almanza said.
“We don’t even get to enjoy any of the fixes the city is supposedly going to do. They’re only fixing the parks for the festivalgoers next year,” Almanza said.
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