Riot Fest moves to Douglas Park | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Riot Fest moves to another park

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And so, after three weeks of heated bickering about how much Riot Fest damaged Humboldt Park over the last few summers and how much aggravation it caused for neighbors, concert organizers have announced that they’re moving to greener pastures in Douglas Park, one block east and two and a half miles south.

Humboldt Park is the domain of Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), who turned against the fest in late April after three years of supporting it, and who held fast even after promoters offered a $30,000 pay-off—er, make that generous donation—for Humboldt Beach. Douglas Park is in the 12th ward, home turf of Ald. George Cardenas. “We are so very excited to get to know our new neighbors and to work with them to hold an event that is beneficial to the community, local businesses, and the residents,” Riot Fest founder Michael Petryshyn said, no doubt flashing a Cheshire Cat grin.

Veteran observers of Chicago politics—and isn’t that all of us?—will be tempted see this as one ward getting greedy with a shakedown of the kids who just wanna enjoy their music and another stepping in to save the day by offering its public green space at a more reasonable price. Some of that may be true, though it ignores the fact that Riot Fest has grown from organic roots in the city’s punk underground to become a very big business, with an aesthetic that’s less D.I.Y. basement show than XRT mega-concert, and as many attendees parking their luxury SUVs in the ’hood as biking or taking CTA.

This columnist is inclined to think that Maldonado bucked considerable pressure from many fronts to side with residents whose real problem is encroaching gentrification rather than torn-up sod and rutted softball fields. But both of these readings miss the bigger picture. So what’s really going on?

Starting in the last few years of the Daley administration but shifting into overdrive under Mayor Emanuel, the Park District has turned from humble keeper of our precious public lands to profit-obsessed peddler of the parks it’s supposed to preserve. Lollapalooza now ties up Grant Park for half the summer, and one of its owners, Austin-based C3 Presents, just claimed a chunk of the spring as well with that much-hyped NFL draft extravaganza. Another Lolla owner, Live Nation, gobbled up what should have been a park on Northerly Island, landing a no-bid contract to build an ugly 30,000-seat concert shed. And residents lose much of the summer in Union Park to the Pitchfork Music Festival in July and the North Coast Music Festival in September.

Self-appointed parks advocates are all up in arms about losing a parking lot at Soldier Field to the Lucas Museum, but they roll over while the Park District rents these actual parks to big corporations. Why? They see green, too—and that’s dollars, not bushes and trees. And hey, if you’d like to claim another stretch of ball fields, jogging paths, and play lots for your big, profitable, very-private party, these folks would love to hear from you, too, provided you can put enough cash on their barrelhead.

Set aside if you must the idealistic notion that, as protestors chanted in Grant and Lincoln parks during the 1968 riots, “Parks are for the people!” Everything in Chicago is for sale, so can that nature-loving commie crap and get real.

Regular readers know that I’m anti-festival for two reasons: Jerry-rigged sound systems, dusty ball fields with lousy sight lines, and overflowing Porta-Potties always will be inferior to the amenities at established concert venues. And the Old Country Buffet model of festival booking and strong-arm business practices like egregious radius clauses have considerable negative impact on the city’s 365-days-a-year musical infrastructure.

The state of the current concert industry may be such that we can’t do more than complain about the latter. But what about the former?

From humble origins in 1968, Milwaukee Summerfest has grown to attract as many as a million people a year, with its title of “the World’s Largest Music Festival” certified by Guinness World Records in 1999. Along the way, our neighboring lakefront city built the 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park to house its big musical shindig, adding the centerpiece 23,000-seat Marcus Amphitheater in 1987.

Permanent concession stands sell quality vittles and oceans of Milwaukee’s Finest, and people find relief in permanent restrooms. Permanent stages offer decent sound and sightlines, permanent parking lots and permanent public transit stops provide easy access, and the whole shebang is a permanent profit center for the city. Annual revenues for the last few years have averaged $35 million with ticket prices between $11 and $18, and Summerfest provides 2,200 seasonal jobs, many to Milwaukee teens.

This and other armchair urban planners frequently ask why Chicago isn’t even considering a similar venue as home for its ever-increasing bounty of festivals—especially given the successful model of the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, which brought life in 2012 to the potentially vibrant but now sorely neglected former lakefront location of U.S. Steel on the far South Side.

Yeah, sure, the city’s credit rating is junk and it’s hurtling toward bankruptcy. But the big corporations behind these fests could pay for the construction of a permanent site with increased amusement taxes, offering a better experience for concertgoers and thereby potentially increasing their profits while simultaneously keeping all of the other parks open and undamaged for everybody else and the neighborhoods free of marauding jerks driving in from the suburbs.

Is this really such an unrealistic pie-in-the-sky vision? Let us not forget that famous quote from the greatest urban planner of them all, the father of Grant Park, Daniel Burnham:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die.”

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