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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Music Fests Will Now Require Park District Board Approval, But Skeptics Worry City Will Choose ‘Profit Over People’

Music fests in parks have long frustrated residents who are fenced out of public spaces. The new rules give communities more power to weigh in — but it remains to be seen if the board will listen.

Hagen Haley dances as Blunts and Blondes performs during the second day of the inaugural Heatwave Music Festival at Douglass Park on July 17, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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NORTH LAWNDALE — Park District officials have pledged to give residents a say over what events happen in their parks after years of mounting resentment from neighbors against private festivals in public areas.

The Park District Board voted unanimously Wednesday to overhaul the agency’s permitting for large events so the process will weigh the community’s wishes and depend on board approval. The changes begin next year.

“The change … is one of transparency and community engagement…,” Park District Supt. Rosa Escareno said. “Our goal is to make sure that where the community has an issue, we can lean in and be more intentional with listening to what the community wants.”

Many Chicagoans were pleased by the gesture to welcome community voice into the decision-making process and spoke in support of the change at the board meetings. The rule change is “a step in the right direction,” though many worry the city will still prioritize the revenue festivals bring in over the needs of residents, said Anton Adkins, of North Lawndale.

“The fact there is the potential for some oversight is a step in the right direction. But am I hopeful? Not really. I think this is a conversation of profit over people,” he said.

Festival permits were previously granted via an opaque internal process with no requirement of community support nor any organized process for collecting feedback from the residents affected by large events at parks.

Many residents living in Lawndale and Little Village have pleaded for help at City Council meetings and Park District Board meetings since 2015 to remove Riot Fest from Douglass Park. But until now, neither the City Council nor the Park District board were involved in permitting large events, leaving residents with no way to boot the festivals that cause issues.

“Utilizing the resources of underserved minorities for the profit of the festival operators is wrong,” Adkins said. “The privatization of these parks with zero benefit to our community, we think that’s wrong.”

In recent years, the Park District has increased the number of megafests at Douglass Park — and the number of weeks areas of the park are closed to the public — despite growing complaints from neighbors who have been fenced out of their public park by private companies for ticketed events.

The Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash hip hop festival launched at the park in 2019, and it was followed by Heatwave Festival this summer.

The three multi-stage music festivals closed portions of Douglass Park for so long, some neighborhood youth programs and sports teams had to relocate to other parks for the season. Portions of the park were also severely damaged by the festivals since the first days of summer, with Park District records confirming the damaged fields weren’t repaired until the fall.

Credit: Provided
The fields at Douglass Park are extensively damaged after the Lyrical Lemonade festival.

“I [hope] this amendment will increase community input. … There is no consent given by the people in the neighborhood for large festivals,” neighbor Shannon Kephart said in a public comment about the festival permitting process. “This is a total of [eight or nine] weeks with very limited access to the park, which amounts to about half the summer.”

Before arriving at Douglass Park, Riot Fest was based at Humboldt Park. But after neighbors raised a furor about the noise, crowds and damage to the park, Riot Fest was booted from Humboldt at the behest of Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th).

Some Little Village and Lawndale residents have been frustrated their own elected officials did not follow suit despite widespread resentment against the three festivals, Adkins said. 

“Right now, there is no input. We are at the mercy of the decisions of the aldermen. They get together with festival promoters, and the Park District decides where things go,” Adkins said.

The new permit process will strengthen community voice in deciding what happens in neighborhood parks, Escareno said. The change will not lead to “eliminating all of those events, otherwise it will cut into our programs” funded by festival revenue, Escareno said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Signs protesting festivals being held at Douglass Park adorn the poles around Douglass Park in North Lawndale on Sept. 19, 2022.

The Park District has a “diverse revenue sources,” and neighborhood programs are funded through taxes and event contracts, Escareno said. The district’s budget for next year estimates increased expenses to fund expanded youth opportunities, more program staff and benefits for employees, though there will not be a tax increase to pay for those expenses, the parks superintendent said.

“Without these diverse revenue sources, we cannot provide the programs,” Escareno said. “It’s about striking the right balance.”

Some worry the need for revenue will lead the Park District Board to vote to keep festivals even when there is opposition from affected communities.

“It’s all about how they enact it and solicit community input,” said Sara Heymann, a Little Village resident and organizer who has campaigned extensively to get the festivals removed from Douglass Park.

Park District leaders must commit to a process that clearly defines how much financial needs and community needs weigh into the permitting decisions, Heymann said.

As the board solicits feedback from residents about events and festivals, its members must be diligent about getting the word out by meeting with local neighborhood groups, putting up flyers and meeting residents in their communities, Heymann said.

“They need to be transparent on the input they receive, and how they weigh that input in their decision-making. The input can’t just go into a black hole, like how we’ve always seen it happen,” she said.