LINCOLN SQUARE — People set off illegal fireworks at Winnemac Park Tuesday night despite city efforts to put an end to the unsanctioned Fourth of July show — but the show was much smaller than usual.
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) ordered temporary fencing installed around the park, 5100 N. Leavitt St., ahead of the Fourth of July holiday in an effort to stop one of the city’s most popular and unsanctioned fireworks shows.
The new fencing, signs reminding neighbors fireworks are illegal in Chicago and an increased police presence did keep crowds away, but some scofflaws did manage to keep the longstanding tradition in Lincoln Square going, neighbors said.
People began setting off fireworks at the park around dusk Monday and again Tuesday, neighbors told Block Club.
“Last night, I did hear fireworks in the evening at dusk for an hour or so, but nothing like I heard on Monday,” said Amy, a neighbor who declined to give her last name.
Another neighbor who asked not to be named said most of the big fireworks stopped around 10 p.m. Tuesday.
It was almost “like there was an unofficial agreement or something to stop them then,” the neighbor said.
This year’s illegal fireworks display appeared much smaller than in previous years, neighbors also said.
Vasquez said the smaller footprint of this year’s amateur show was a step in the right direction.
“I think what is clear is that the park district and CPD kind of don’t have the capacity, especially when you’re thinking about all the activity that occurs on July 4, to stop it,” Vasquez said. “But it was a much smaller crowd than in years before, which I think is a positive thing.”
Moving forward, he still wants to pursue a safer, city-sanctioned Fourth of July event at the park but said he needs neighborhood buy in for that to get off the ground.
“It’s really about having an event that’s a little more controlled as it pertains to the fireworks because of the damage that could occur to the astroturf, as far as the Winnemac improvements,” Vasquez said. “But also for how long the unsanctioned event goes until.”
Vasquez credits police doing a sweep of the park around 10 p.m as the reason the fireworks wrapped up by 10 p.m., he said.
Early Wednesday, debris from spent fireworks littered three of the park’s five baseball fields, including the one used by Amundsen High School’s baseball team on the north side of the park.
Additionally, the temporary fencing installed at a baseball field on the southern half of the park had been ripped out of the ground and was surrounded by boxes of spent fireworks.
Despite this, a police spokesman said officers dispatched to the park between 3 p.m. July 4 and 3 a.m. July 5 to search for people setting off illegal fireworks and completed a search with “negative results.”
The new fencing didn’t completely block off access to the park’s baseball diamonds that are typically used as the staging area for the fireworks.
“This is Chicago, the city of parking spot dibs. You can put up these rickety looking fences but if the neighborhood wants to do it, they’re gonna do it,” neighbor Brian Mcewan said in the park Friday.
Early Wednesday morning, there was a lock on the park’s northern parking lot gate but not on the southern one.
A Tradition That Neighbors Say Grew Too Big
Beloved by participants and hated by some neighbors, the illegal fireworks show at the park is one of the most prominent amateur fireworks displays on the North Side.
The event typically attracts hundreds of people every year. Critics say the fireworks show ends up littering the park with debris and filling the sky with smoke.
In previous years, Vasquez has urged people to stay off the fields in advance of the holiday. But this year, he went a step further and coordinated with the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Police Department to fence off sections of the park.
The event that started in just one baseball diamond 30 years ago has grown unruly in recent years, neighbors told Block Club.
“I’ve lived close to 30 years in this neighborhood and I’ve seen the fireworks almost every year. Maybe 20 years ago it used to be so much smaller. Just in one of the fields over there. But with all the families in the neighborhood, it’s become so big,” Amy said.
She remembers thinking it didn’t look particularly safe during one Fourth of July as the parking lots at the park were filled with cars and neighbors as the fireworks were being set off, she said.
“I also had a friend that was injured from the fireworks, the sparks and everything,” Amy said. She hoped the city could take steps to make the rogue display into an official one endorsed by the city.
Last year, Vasquez said planned upgrades to the ball fields at Winnemac were at risk of not moving forward because of the park district’s concerns about the July fireworks damaging the work.
In April, City Council signed off on $2 million in tax-increment financing funds to upgrade the park’s infrastructure, which includes installing an artificial turf infield with grading and stormwater improvements to drain the baseball field Amundsen High School’s baseball team uses.
On Friday, neighbors using the park appeared to be on board with the alderman and city’s efforts to stop the illegal fireworks.
Neighbor Nicky Margolis, who was walking through the park, said the display “does not feel safe.”
“I’m not a huge fan of the fireworks. I know a lot of people are and I and I’d hate to see something that people really care about go away,” Margolis said. “But it has not felt safe when I’ve come to it. I mean I’ve seen people launching fireworks horizontally.”
Neighbor Chloe Mills said fireworks “scare animals” and “traumatize people.”
“There’s so much litter and so much danger involved,” Mills said. “And especially with the air quality this year, I don’t think we need to especially be putting more smoke into the air.”
The city does have a legal process for neighbors to put on a fireworks display. A fireworks license requires neighbors to use city-sanctioned fireworks vendors, and get support from community stakeholders as well as the Chicago Fire Department.
Vasquez said he’d be on board with bringing fireworks back to the park in a legalized event sometime in the future.
“I think looking at how to do a professionally run and insured event that keeps it in that community space could be a compromise that people can find agreement on,” Vasquez said.
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