On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, hundreds of community members met at Douglass Park. The goal was to enjoy the park and to organize against music festivals.
Community members lined up in configurations to form huge letters, and they filmed the scene using a camera attached to a drone flying above them.
They wanted to send a message.
“No Mega Fests!”
Douglass Park is now home to three of Chicago’s biggest music festivals — Summer Smash, in June; Heatwave, in July; and Riot Fest, to be held next month — and each one temporarily blocks access to the public park for nearly two weeks.
For several days in advance of each festival, Douglass Park is fenced off and closed to the public as crews build massive music stages, set up sound systems, vendors and portable restrooms. Then, tens of thousands of spectators — from across the city and even other states — descend on North Lawndale, a historically disinvested and over-policed community for the weekend music festivals. Many attendees are young and white and unaware their presence can disrupt access to limited resources like the two safety-net hospitals next to the park. Some attendees leave trash, destroy property and even pee in alleys and the yards of neighborhood residents. After each music fest, Douglass Park remains fenced off for nearly another week to help restore the park for public use.
This summer, from June through September, residents won’t have access to Douglass Park for as many as 47 days due to these music festivals — that’s nearly 40% of the total days in those months.
Residents, particularly from the North Lawndale and Little Village communities, have protested the festivals for years. They started when Riot Fest first arrived at Douglass Park in 2015. The residents have called, emailed and written to their aldermen to no avail. This week, residents are appealing directly to musicians not to perform at Riot Fest next month.
Despite the outcry, the number of music festivals at the park has grown from one to three. And the elected officials that residents have asked to halt the festivals have instead offered their support for the events while also accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from festival organizers.
“What I’ve learned from organizing against Riot Fest is that if you’re rich, you can do literally whatever you want,” said Sara Heymann, who has been organizing against the festivals for years. “If you’re not, nobody cares what you think.”
Heymann has tried to meet with Chicago Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward, which includes Brighton Park, McKinley Park and Little Village, but she said it feels like he’s been unresponsive with her and the community organizations she’s affiliated with. She still couldn’t get the alderman to meet with her even after she joined the Douglass Park Advisory Council. However, she sent a certified letter to Cardenas along with a list of complaints, including notes from community meetings.
Residents said they want a voice during the permit approval process. The Chicago Park District said Heatwave organizers provided evidence the community wanted that festival, which made its debut in Douglass Park in June. Records show Heatwave organizers “submitted letters of support from Alderman Cardenas” and additional letters of support from three community organizations. However, two of those groups are actually based in Pilsen, records show.
“We are excited to welcome this new festival into the neighborhood and believe that it will bring great opportunities,” Cardenas wrote in a letter, dated May 25, 2022, to Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño supporting the Heatwave music festival.
A review of park district special events applications revealed Cardenas has written letters of support for all three festivals held in Douglass Park — for Riot Fest in 2015 and 2016; Summer Smash in 2019 and 2022; and Heatwave in 2022. Former Ald. Michael Scott, 24th Ward, which includes most of North Lawndale, wrote a letter of support for Summer Smash in 2018. Meanwhile, an examination of campaign finance records shows those aldermen received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from festival promoters. Both aldermen also received contributions from a political committee controlled by a registered lobbyist for two of the Douglass Park music fests.
Residents accuse Cardenas of caring more about his donors. Cardenas’s campaign donations have been displayed during community meetings.
Cardenas said his support for the music festivals has nothing to do with the campaign contributions he’s received.
“Honestly, obviously there’s pieces of policymaking, also fundraising which are separate and run separately by different folks, that organize these two things. And I will look into that in terms of what has been donated by who,” he said.
Cardenas said he welcomed Riot Fest in 2015. The punk rock festival had been kicked out of Humboldt Park by community members who didn’t want their park fenced off for Riot Fest. In 2014, a combination of rain and thousands of spectators moshing in the mud left the park with significant damage. After supporting the festival in prior years, Ald. Roberto Maldonado, 26th Ward, changed his mind. Soon after, Cardenas teamed up with Scott to bring the festival to Douglass Park. Cardenas said the community would “highly benefit by this festival coming in and creating an economic impact.”Since 2016, the promoters behind the Riot Fest, Summer Smash and Heatwave music festivals, collectively, have donated at least $44,650 to Cardenas, the 12th Ward alderman. From 2017 to 2021, Scott, the former 24th Ward alderman, received at least $17,500 in campaign contributions from the promoters of two festivals, though most of it came from Summer Smash promoters. Scott declined to comment for this story. He stepped down from his post in 2022. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed Scott’s sister, Monique, to finish the term, which is set to end next year. Ald. Monique Scott, 24th Ward, could not be reached for comment.
Summer Smash promoters declined an interview with WBEZ but said in an email that “all donations were intended to support the local community, especially the residents and businesses in the surrounding areas.”
Both Cardenas and Scott received thousands of dollars in additional campaign contributions from the Chicago Latino Public Affairs Committee. Since 2015, Cardenas, the 12th Ward alderman, has received at least $56,750 from the committee. From 2017 to 2021, Scott, the former 24th Ward alderman, received at least $11,750 from the committee, according to a WBEZ analysis of campaign finance records. Homero Tristan co-founded the committee in 2010. Records show he’s still the committee’s chairman and treasurer. Tristan is a registered lobbyist with the city of Chicago, and records show his client list — for the years 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021 — included the organizers of Riot Fest or Summer Smash or both.
Tristan said he has complied with the city’s ethic’s ordinance.
“With respect to the activities of my law firm, Tristan & Cervantes prides itself in the quality of legal services we undertake on behalf of our clients. We strongly respect and value our client relationships, so as a matter of practice we do not comment on behalf of or about our clients or their activities,” Tristan said in a statement.
Who gets to decide?
WBEZ asked the Chicago Park District whether it’s a conflict of interest for an alderman to write a letter of support on behalf of festival promoters who also contribute to their campaigns. In a lengthy email in which it responded to a number of questions, the agency said the letters are not required, adding the park district “looks to a variety of other factors to determine a permit approval.”
In addition to permit fees and any permits required by the city, the park district requires festival organizers to submit insurance, a security plan, medical plan and community engagement plan. When asked about community input during the process, the park district said it “strongly encouraged organizers of large-scale events to engage with and garner support from local community leaders, including aldermen, before submitting their application.”
“Under its new leadership, the Park District is continuously evaluating permitted events of all sizes and exploring ways to improve community engagement, including welcoming input from neighboring residents and other community stakeholders,” the park district said.
Still, an alderman can be an influential voice in that process, and it’s unclear for many residents how they can weigh in and whether their opinions ultimately matter.
Almost a week after Cardenas wrote a letter supporting a new music festival at Douglass Park, he asked the McKinley Park community on Facebook for feedback on a proposal to bring the three-day Más Flow Reggaetón Fest to McKinley Park.
In June, based on community feedback, Cardenas posted on his Facebook account that he had rejected the proposal to bring the music festival to McKinley Park, which is located at Western Avenue and Pershing Road.
“McKinley Park will not host a music festival. Everyone’s thoughtful comments are much appreciated,” Cardenas wrote on Facebook on June 3, 2022. As North Lawndale and Little Village residents have expressed about music festivals in Douglass Park, McKinley Park residents were concerned with traffic, parking, loud music and access to that park.
“How come Douglass Park residents haven’t been given the same consideration?” Heymann responded to Cardenas’s post. For Heymann, the alderman’s Facebook post served as a display of his power to determine which music festivals could be held in his ward. But it also showed his willingness to listen to the concerns of one community but to ignore those of another.
“I was definitely not shocked that Ald. Cardenas gave McKinley Park a voice in what happens in their neighborhood park and has completely ignored our voices in Lawndale,” she said. “It made me wonder why the city and park district doesn’t have a process for community input in their parks to stop this type of discrimination from happening.”
Cardenas denied those claims.
“I think that sometimes people will say things and conflate, you know, if I’m gonna be dealing with a specific one person, then I’m not dealing with anybody. That’s just not the case,” Cardenas said.
Earlier this month, Riot Fest held its first community meeting since arriving in Douglass Park in 2015. The meeting is a new requirement by the park district following community pressure. Scott Fisher, who applied for the festival’s permit, arrived at the community meeting without an agenda, pen and notebook or translator for the mostly Spanish-speaking community that lives nearby. Fisher didn’t answer most questions when residents pressed him for answers.
“Listen if you can’t understand pure English and the fact that I can’t answer that question…” Fisher told a crowd of residents wanting more information about access to the park, logistics and clean up, according to a recording of the meeting reported by the Chicago Reader.
Riot Fest apologized for Fisher’s behavior and said “we don’t condone the tone and apologize to the Douglass Park community as it is not reflective of RF’s values or any of our past work in the park. We respect the concerns of the neighbors and want to make sure they are heard and addressed,” Riot Fest said in a press statement.
Fisher stepped down, and Riot Fest promised another community meeting, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Riot Fest did not respond to WBEZ’s multiple requests for comment.
Parks are particularly vital in poor communities.
“You are more dependent on outdoor and public spaces when you are renting smaller apartments or you may not have air conditioning in your apartment. Particularly when you have park space located in low-income or disinvested communities, there’s a lot of reliance on those spaces,” said Rachel Weber, an urban planning and policy professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. “And so preventing access to them or denying access I think is quite substantial.”
Weber said turning over public parks temporarily to private entities is part of a familiar trend, similar in some ways to the city’s deals to lease its parking meters and the Chicago Skyway.
“There’s a long history of privatizing urban infrastructures in Chicago … the private use of public space,” Weber said.
‘It’s private property’
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in June, waves of Summer Smash festival attendees cross the street ignoring an ambulance trying to get through. The sounds of other ambulances swerving around traffic along California Avenue can be heard temporarily drowning out the loud music.
“Some people don’t respect the fact that there are two hospitals crucial to that area of Chicago: [Mount] Sinai and Saint Anthony,” said a Saint Anthony emergency room nurse who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “It can really make it difficult not just for employees to get there but also for emergency services to get through.”
She said the festivals are creating serious problems for the hospitals. She said festivals also bring more visitors to her ER. It was busy during last year’s Summer Smash festival.
“The ER was packed,” she said. “There were just people lining the hallways. That causes real difficulty for the other community members who are used to accessing their health care at Saint Anthony. It takes beds away from those patients during COVID, especially.”
The ER nurse is also concerned about the loud music and its impact on recovering patients. She often hands out earplugs to patients.
Saint Anthony Hospital officials did not respond to multiple requests for information.
However, the hospital predicted some of the problems shared by the ER nurse in a 2015 lawsuit Saint Anthony filed against Riot Fest.
“Riot Fest is expected to draw 45,000 attendees daily, in addition to vendors, musicians, ride operators, carnival ‘freaks,’ and security. These people will create massive congestion and disruption in the neighborhood and will have a particularly significant impact on Saint Anthony as many of these people will arrive at Douglass Park via the CTA Pink Line, which is located behind Saint Anthony. Accordingly, tens of thousands of people will be traversing and loitering on and around the main streets that directly surround Saint Anthony. This will drastically impact the ability of patients, visitors, physicians, nurses, and other staff members to obtain access to Saint Anthony,” the lawsuit said.
The hospital asked a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order shortly before the 2015 Riot Fest was scheduled to start. “The health, well-being, and recoveries of Saint Anthony’s patients should not be jeopardized simply to permit Riot Fest to proceed with its profit motives,” according to the 2015 lawsuit, which was later settled.
Meanwhile, Mount Sinai Hospital saw about a 10% increase in the number of patients visiting its emergency room during the weekend music festivals, according to hospital staff. On the first day of last year’s Riot Fest, 110 patients visited the 23-bed emergency room, according to data the hospital provided.
In addition, records show the Level 1 trauma center at Mount Sinai was placed temporarily on “bypass” — a time during which ambulances that would normally bring patients to the hospital are diverted to other hospitals — at least four times during the weekend music festivals since 2018.
Hospitals go on bypass because their emergency rooms fill up — crowded because of a sudden influx of patients or because patients who should be admitted get stuck in the emergency room due to a lack of beds elsewhere in a hospital.
Cardenas said he meets regularly with representatives from both hospitals, but he declined to share specifics about the meetings. Cardenas said he also meets with residents.On a hot Sunday morning this summer, a group of Latinos are playing a friendly soccer match at Douglass Park in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. The men play with intensity as supporters watch from the sidelines. They are part of the Douglass Park Adult Soccer league.
The year Riot Fest moved to Douglass Park, soccer players said they noticed two soccer fields disappeared. Now, the players say they keep losing access to the park every year.
Oscar Trujillo runs the league. He typically rents three soccer fields for nine weeks over the summer. But the festivals often block the fields he’s rented.
“I usually move the games to Washington Park. I have to rent there knowing I’ve already rented another field. They don’t care. They just block it and let you figure it out,” Trujillo said.
A children’s soccer league serving hundreds of students was canceled last year. Trujillo said some parents told him they didn’t want to rent a soccer field that’s often blocked.
Douglass Park is critical for both North Lawndale and Little Village. In the 60623 ZIP code, which covers most of both communities, Douglass Park accounts for more than 80% of available park land, according to a WBEZ analysis of park district data.
Rebecca Wolfram, who has lived near Douglass Park for 26 years, said it’s unfair residents don’t have a voice in deciding whether they want these festivals.
“The purpose of a public park is for the public. It’s been taken away from the public and turned into a private enterprise,” said Wolfram. She tried to visit the park in June as crews were preparing the site for the Summer Smash festival.
“I literally tried to walk into the park. I think it was one of the first days they were … setting this up, around June 7,” Wolfram recalled. “And like the guy said, ‘You can’t come in here.’ I said, ‘But it’s a park. It’s a public park.’ He said, ‘No, it’s not a public park. Not now. It’s private property.’ ”
Melissa Renee Perry contributed to this story.