Riot Fest departure from Douglass Park sparks more debate

Sheila McNary had a somewhat complicated relationship with Riot Fest over the years. The 71-year-old North Lawndale resident lives across the street from Douglass Park.

When the festival moved to the park in 2015 — following neighbor complaints at its previous location in Humboldt Park — McNary said it almost felt like the community was being invaded by unfamiliar music and traffic congestion. McNary and her husband left to stay in a hotel for the weekend.

“When they first came, it was more or less like a group coming to profit from a big festival in the community that they’re not from, the music was not from the community,” said McNary, who is involved with the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council.

The rock, punk and hip-hop festival has long been a source of controversy for the West Side park, which is surrounded by North Lawndale, a predominantly Black neighborhood, and the largely Latino Little Village. It prompted a movement to evict the huge crowds that activists said trashed the green space, while cutting off access to half the park. Two other large music festivals previously held in the park also moved, while the free Juneteenth Village Celebration will be held Saturday.

But over time, McNary said the relationship improved, with more community involvement, free local vendor spaces, and jobs. When she learned the festival was moving to southwest suburban Bridgeview this September, McNary said she was shocked.

Riot Fest officials arrived at the decision after years of controversy. They had tried to appease activists with mentorships, jobs, coat and book drives, and donations.

The announcement of the move Wednesday came just before the Chicago Park District was set to consider allowing the festival for another year, which became moot.

Riot Fest organizer Mike Petryshyn, known as Riot Mike, posted an online statement blaming the departure “solely” on the Park District. “Their lack of care for the community, you, and us, ultimately left us no choice,” he said.

The Park District issued a statement in response that it “worked tirelessly to strike a balance between community interests and our Special Events organizers.”

“Community voices are critical to our decision-making process,” the statement added, “which is why a comprehensive community engagement process is a necessary component in evaluating a permit application.”

Homei, right, stands by as his owner, Jose Allende exercises under a willow tree in Chicago's Douglass Park on June 13, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Homei, right, stands by as his owner, Jose Allende exercises under a willow tree in Chicago’s Douglass Park on June 13, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Further complicating the picture, the fest is set for SeatGeak Stadium the same weekend of Sept. 21 that the Chicago Red Stars women’s pro soccer team is set to host a match. Sources told the Tribune that the team was considering legal action if the fest forces them to move.

Chicago Red Stars might seek legal action over Riot Fest relocation to SeatGeek Stadium: ‘It’s devastating’

Bridgeview officials issued a statement Thursday that the Red Stars contract allows other events to be held at the same time.

Teams that played at the stadium, including the Chicago Fire men’s soccer team, the Chicago Hounds rugby team, and the Red Stars themselves, have moved games or worked cooperatively to hold concurrent events without issues, according to the statement.

While Riot Fest is expected to set up in the parking lot outside the stadium, the Red Stars were told in April about the possibility of needing to move their match. Village officials said they would work with the team to ensure “an optimal experience” for fans that day, or whenever they choose to play the game.

The team recently set an attendance record with 35,000 fans at a one-time game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs are playing at Wrigley on Sept. 21, but Guaranteed Rate Field is open while the White Sox are away.

Cultural events at Chicago parks generate $20 million annually for the Park District, and tax revenue for the city.

Asked if he views the departure as a loss for the city, Mayor Brandon Johnson instead highlighted other neighborhood and downtown festivals.

A couple pushes a stroller through Chicago's Douglass Park on June 13, 2024. Riotfest is planned to relocate to SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview after being located in Douglass Park. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
A couple pushes a stroller through Chicago’s Douglass Park on June 13, 2024. Rio Fest is relocating to SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview after nearly a decade in Douglass Park. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Johnson added that he is still gathering information to better understand any possible “communications breakdowns.”

“We’ll figure out where those disconnects are and find opportunities where we can either build, mend or create,” he said.

Bridgeview officials said they were trying to maximize revenues for their taxpayers. A municipal tax could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ald. Monique Scott, whose 24th Ward includes the park, blamed the Park District for the festival leaving. Riot Fest’s rent increased from around $300,000 to $700,000 last year, she said. The Park District did not meet with organizers when they asked to discuss the cost, she added.

Meanwhile, despite getting initial approval from Park District administrators, the district’s board had yet to approve the festival’s permit, putting into question whether the festival would even be able to use the park, Scott said. The uncertainty made it hard to move forward.

“The Park District was asking for a fee, but not giving them the full guarantee that they would be approved by the board,” Scott said. “When you have 50,000 people a day, you have to book acts.”

Scott worked at the district as the Ellis Park supervisor before taking office. Her late father, Michael Scott Sr., was president of the Park District board under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Similar pressure led the Summer Smash music festival to move out of Douglass Park to Bridgeview last year, Scott said. With the latest departure, the park will lose its modest 10% slice of the festival’s $700,000 permit, which previously had helped repave a track and solve flooding issues at a pond, Scott said.

Jacaree Hughes, 9, stands atop a sprinkler while cooling off in Chicago's Douglass Park on June 13, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Jacaree Hughes, 9, stands atop a sprinkler while cooling off in Chicago’s Douglass Park on June 13, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

The West Side neighborhood will also lose jobs and a rare influx of hordes of people.

“We don’t get a lot of traffic in that community,” Scott said. “That is the one time that our community can say there are 50,000 people in one day, so they have to eat and go someplace.”

Organizers made changes in recent years to reduce noise and keep more of the park open during the festival, she added.

“Where resources have been low, they have actually been very helpful,” Scott said. “The Park has to do better with how they process these permits.”

Resident Florina Florea didn’t quite say good riddance — but she was glad to see Riot Fest leave Douglass Park.

“I was never against Riot Fest, but this was not a suitable location,” said Florea, who can see the park from her window. “This is about the Chicago Park District abusing their power. They’re so desperate for money to privatize these public spaces. It should be a community space for the people.”

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