The lessons of Lollapalooza 2012

August 6, 2012

“We got lucky with the weather tonight, didn’t we?” Jack White asked from the stage Sunday night as he closed out Lollapalooza 2012, the eighth edition of the giant corporate concert that’s become Walmart on the Lake.

In fact, Austin, Texas-based concert promoters C3 Presents and city officials are the ones who should be counting their blessings after a severe-weather evacuation Saturday afternoon shunted more than 60,000 people out of Grant Park on to Michigan Avenue as a torrential downpour, intense lightning and winds up to 60 miles per hour descended on the lakefront. As WBEZ’s Kate Dries observed, “It’s pure luck that things went as smoothly as they did.”

In the wake of the weekend’s events, last week’s report by Heather Gillers in The Chicago Tribune and my report on this blog reiterating the question I first raised four years ago seemed prescient: What is the evacuation plan for Lollapalooza if dangerous weather threatens the daily crowd of almost 100,000?

Now we know the answer: Kick everyone out of the park and hope for the best.

Formally, the plan called for the crowd to be directed into the underground parking garages at the northern end of the park, as reporters had speculated. (The city refused to answer the question in advance because of terrorist/security concerns.) Few concertgoers on Saturday got that message, however, and the majority of concert staff, security and city emergency officials seemed to be clueless about it, too, according to all reports.

Here is the Tribune’s Gillers, who was on the scene:

Many concertgoers said they received no instruction on where to evacuate to, and crowds clustered under building awnings and bus shelters while waiting for the storm to pass.

Staff at Grant Park North Garage estimated that perhaps 100 people had taken shelter there, and those interviewed said they had found the location on their own. Alicia Fuentes, 27, of San Francisco, said she thought to take shelter in the garage only because she had parked her car there.

“All they said was ‘move now, move now,’” she said. “No directions. Nothing. We didn’t even know what was going on until I called my mom. She said, ‘There are severe thunderstorms coming through, you better go underground.’”

Others clustered in the garage said that they had also parked there—or that they had stumbled on it while looking for a warm, dry spot.

George Clark, 21, of Chicago said he and his friends were first told to evacuate Grant Park and then shooed away from the park’s entranceway.

“They just started telling us to leave,” Clark said. “They didn’t tell us to go anywhere specific.”

 “In a bit of irony,” Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Thomas Conner wrote, the new, imposing black security fences installed this year to keep gate-crashers out slowed the paying concertgoers’ attempts to quickly evacuate, “though several jumped the fence to get out rather than sneak in.” He continued:

Clearing the park was one thing, and seemed to be accomplished in a timely manner (with plenty of time before the storm hit) and relatively easily. Giving the nearly 60,000 people someplace to go, however, seemed another matter.

As I began to exit the park, I asked staff near the inside gate where we were being directed. I was told to proceed to the next gate where there would be instructions. The outer gate poured us all onto Michigan Avenue, and there was no one giving directions. There was no staff in sight. Fans were simply flowing onto Michigan Avenue, snarling traffic and scattering.

"Once we were outside of the park, there was no information or directions anywhere," said Noah Hyrent of Roselle.

They filled hotels and businesses, some of which reacted against the influx. At a Starbucks at Michigan and Balbo, employees ordered everyone out of the packed coffee shop, even customers who had beverages in their hands. A liquor store near Michigan and Congress locked its doors… One Chicago Police officer, leaning casually against a fence along Michigan Ave., quipped: "There's no place out here for 100,000 people to go."

Another Sun-Times report added: At a Starbucks at Michigan and Balbo, employees ordered everyone out of the packed coffee shop, even customers who had beverages in their hands. Some concertgoers sat under shelters at bus stops and store awnings, and many could be heard screaming obscenities as they were escorted north of Grant Park.

WBEZ’s reporters on the scene pulled no punches in pointing out the obvious flaws of this “evacuation plan.” Wrote Dries: There was no mention of where to go or when things might be getting back up to speed, if at all. The city and Lollapalooza officials may have had a plan, but few were privy to it. It's difficult to chalk up the relative calm that followed to anything other than a lot of people who just didn't want to ruin the day they were having.

Added Annie Minoff:

As a reader of Jim DeRogatis’ blog, I knew the contingency plan, such as it was: In case of evacuation, get to the Grant Park garages. But as for all those Lolla staff and CPD who supposedly “directed [us] to pre-established underground evacuation and shelter sites” per Lolla’s press release? That’s total bunk. I encountered no festival staff beyond the Lolla gates. An OEMC traffic officer I asked about the evacuation site had no idea such a site existed. Even the festivalgoers I found leaning up against the garage entrances had no idea they were supposed to be there. When I asked why none of them were moving underground, I was told it was hot down there. Lolla did eventually send out a notice via Twitter alerting readers to the garage evac site (not that many took them up on the offer). But as literally anyone at the fest this weekend could tell you, service is not reliable. Was this really the plan? To rely on an emergency communication system that, for one, assumes festivalgoers have smart phones, and for two, can get service?

As has been their habit, C3 executives and city officials ignored what reporters saw and issued a statement maintaining that there were no problems whatsoever and everything went smoothly with the evacuation. Pressed on that by the Tribune’s Gillers, C3 spokeswoman Shelby Meade insisted that, “concert-goers got ‘very clear’ instructions from C3 staff,” while city Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Delores Robinson stuck to the line that “city and C3 staff advised the evacuees to seek shelter nearby,” adding that the emergency management office is involved in an ongoing campaign throughout the year to make people aware of where emergency shelters are.

Perhaps they should start with their own employees. As the Tribune’s Bob Gendron wrote via Twitter, “Lolla organizers issued statement about evacuation. Their numbers, claims do not jive with my experience or what I saw.”

This disconnect between what reporters saw and what concert organizers said was obvious in almost all media accounts, and it represented a distinct departure from the general cheerleading and softball coverage that Lollapalooza has received from year one in Grant Park, with certain notable exceptions. In 2008, while I still was the rock critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, freelancer Anders Lindall and I covered a truly harrowing gate crash by fans of Rage Against the Machine, watching the flash mob trample everyone in its path. C3 and police officials denied that it even happened.

At-times dangerous situations still exist at the concert, largely because of the configuration of the park to accommodate as many luxury V.I.P. cabanas as possible, a problem now exacerbated by fenced-off bushes. Lindall described another disturbing event this year, before the performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He wrote:

If no one was seriously injured Saturday night at Lollapalooza, it was only thanks to good fortune.

Just hours after a powerful thunderstorm forced Grant Park's evacuation, a new danger presented itself on the ground leading up to the delayed performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Extreme crowding among the throng of readmitted fans plus a new, more confining array of fences coupled to create scary bottlenecks of shoving bodies on the two staircases that connect Hutchinson Field with Columbus Drive on the west.

The circumstances closely resembled foot-traffic jams on the same staircases that played a role in trampling incidents during Rage Against the Machine's infamous set at Lollapalooza four years ago. In that case, "Concertgoers trying to go up a set of cement steps were pushed backwards or blocked from exiting as a bull rush of male fans barreled down the steps, knocking people over like dominoes," MTV reported

How did [Saturday’s event] happen? It seemed obvious that there were far too many people trying to get to Hutchinson Field at once, with inadequate access to do so. There is no way that tens of thousands of people can share two staircases without causing a bottleneck. But the VIP cabanas that line most of the hill combine with new fencing added this year—ostensibly to protect trees, shrubs and grounds from foot traffic—to funnel the huge crowds into just these two confined areas.

What's more, I saw little or no police or security personnel in the area. Their authority has to be used to keep these exits clear. Aside from the threat of a crowd surge resulting in people trampled or crushed, the blocked exits could have prevented emergency personnel from being able to respond immediately to a medical or security situation on the field.

Police also reported two stabbings at this year’s concert, one on Friday and another on Saturday.

Will the promoters and city officials examine and improve upon potentially unsafe conditions before the next concert—and the next, and the next? (Lollapalooza officially is here through 2021, though the terms of the new concert struck earlier this year actually allow the city and the promoters to extend its presence here annually in perpetuity.)

Certainly they should. But in eight years, they’ve never really probed any of the big-picture questions: Can Grant Park really accommodate that many people, and is it the ideal location for such a concert? Is it right for the city to privatize the park for such an event? And what are its real impacts, pro and con, on Chicago, its businesses and its music scene?

There is no reason to expect that the city will start asking those tough questions now, or in any way curtail the preferential treatment it accords C3 Presents, which is showered with love that no other promoter ever has gotten.

Here, it is worth noting once again that, as with so many things in Chicago, Lollapalooza is here for two reasons: Clout (50 percent of the festival is owned by Hollywood’s William Morris Endeavor talent agency, run by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari, and its registered agent and lobbyist remains Mark Vanecko, nephew of former Mayor Richard Daley) and cash (the city is quick to tout the financial benefits of the concert, though no independent economic analysis ever has been done, and only this year will the concert finally pay its full freight of the amusement taxes levied on every other entertainment event in this city).

Meanwhile, in a final bit of irony, while Bob O’Neill of the toothless watchdog group the Grant Park Conservancy last week assured me and listeners to WBEZ’s 848 that last year’s months-long cleanup of the park was the result of once-in-a-lifetime storms, this year’s restoration likely will take even longer. Wrote the Tribune’s Gendron via Twitter: Standing water everywhere. Inches deep. Unreal conditions… This year’s storm likely to make last year’s park damage [seem] minor.”

And, in stark contrast to the terms imposed on every other festival held in a public park, C3 faces no penalties, fines or specific deadlines for failing to restore the park in a timely manner to the condition it was in before the concert.

Meanwhile, Lollapalooza continues to grow. Though the promoters were thwarted several years ago in their attempt to expand in the U.S. with an edition of the festival on the east coast, they have gone global, with concerts in Brazil, Chile… and now in Israel.

During last weekend’s festivities, C3 announced that Lollapalooza will expand in 2013 to Tel Aviv, a fact reported without much comment by the media covering the Grant Park bash. But one of this blog’s readers directed its attention to a story that dug a little deeper.

Writing for electronicintifada.net, Benjamin Doherty noted that C3 will hold its event in Israel in Yarkon Park, “built over the ruins of the Palestinian village of Jarisha whose residents were forced to flee their homes under attack by Zionist militias in 1948.” Gee, if only Lollapalooza had been around to play Sun City before that troubling business of Apartheid came to an end.

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