‘We tell them what we want, and they tell us what we’re going to get:’ Residents feel excluded in Chicago Park District’s engagement process over where to host mega festivals


Jacqueline Cardenas

The Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners listen to concerns raised by residents.

With only two minutes on the clock, several West Side residents stepped up to the mic and spoke at a Chicago Park District public meeting on Wednesday at Fosco Park. Many of them expressed to the Board of Commissioners the same request they have had for months— to remove mega festivals from Douglass Park.

Since 2015, Little Village and North Lawndale residents have pleaded at Park District Board meetings and City Council meetings to remove the three mega music festivals hosted by private companies in the public park over the summer: Riot Fest, Lyrical Lemonade and Heatwave.

Residents said the festivals have made the green space inaccessible for residents for several weeks out of the summer. Other concerns raised by locals include traffic congestion, lack of access to the park, public safety from inebriated festival goers and trauma hospital disruption. 

The three-day punk rock music festival, Riot Fest, used to be held in Humboldt Park until 2015 when it was relocated after neighbors raised complaints over noise, large crowds and park damages. Lyrical Lemonade and Heatwave were later added.

A resident takes note during the Chicago Park District meeting held in Fosco Park. (Jacqueline Cardenas)

Previously, festival permits were granted without any requirement to reach out to the community for their input, nor was there a specific process for collecting feedback from residents affected by large events held at public parks. 

After growing tensions from community members, the park district officials pledged in November to give residents a say over what events take place in their parks, according to Block Club Chicago

In an email to La DePaulia, the Chicago Park District Communications Director Michele Lemons said that the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve changes to Chapter VII of the Chicago Park District Code, which states the use of public parks. 

With the  amendment, it is now required for  the board to give “provisional approval” for permitted events with an attendance of 10,000 or more before a permit can be issued. Organizers must also have a “community engagement plan that addresses the community’s concerns.”

Lifelong North Lawndale resident Denise Ferguson said the provisional approval does not give the community what they really want. 

“We didn’t ask them for that. We asked them to not have festivals,” Ferguson said.

Despite the park district’s alterations, some residents say they still don’t have a say in what events are held in the public parks. 

“It’s up to the organizer to provide us a plan of engagement,” Park District Supt. Rosa Escareño said at Wednesday’s meeting. 

Little Village resident Rebecca Wolfram has expressed her concerns at open meetings since 2017. Last week, Wolfram said she is upset that park district officials are “not requiring them to have any specific way of doing it.”

“It’s like up to the festivals to figure out their own way,” Wolfram said. “Essentially, the park district has become a landlord renting out public property.”

West side residents Rebecca Wolfram to the left and Denise Ferguson on the right listen during the Chicago Park District meeting. (Jacqueline Cardenas)

Ferguson said the park district Board of Commissioners are not taking citizen’s concerns seriously and are just “performing” their community involvement process. 

“We tell them what we want, and they tell us what we’re going to get. I think that’s very disrespectful,” Ferguson added. 

West side resident Susan Mullen said not much has changed besides the bureaucratic process. 

“We don’t truly have a seat at the table,” Mullen said. 

Riot Fest is expected to take place from September 15 to 17 of this year, according to the festival’s website, although they do not indicate where it will take place. Though their “neighborhood guide” includes information about local businesses near Douglass Park.

Other festivals, such as Lyrical Lemonade, also do not clearly indicate when or where the festival will take place on their official website, moreover, they have not updated their site since last year’s festival. Heatwave pre-sale tickets are available to purchase on their website. It will take place June 10-11 but location details are also not provided on their website.

Lemons told La DePaulia via email that “no festival permits have been issued at this time.” 

The park district created a customer satisfaction survey last fall of which the Board of Commissioners encouraged residents to fill out during the meeting. 

The survey asks customers what the park district can do to “improve the manner in which events that require a permit are offered.”

Ferguson said she longs for the days she could visit Douglass Park and have it filled with people rather than festivals. 

“When kids can’t run around or couples can’t kiss under trees, when people can’t use the park, it’s heartbreaking. It’s one of the few free spaces we have,” Ferguson said.