The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Riot Fest Has Become Moving Target In Gentrification Fight

By Rachel Cromidas in News on Jun 4, 2015 7:40PM

Photo of the crowd at the 2012 Riot Fest by Cobra Productions

In the struggle over two of Chicago's most controversial local causes, West Side gentrification and the privatization of public services, Riot Fest has accidentally become a symbol of both and a moving target for activists, despite organizers' efforts to have a positive community influence.

After a tense and sometimes ugly fight to keep Riot Fest in Humboldt Park, which was opposed by 26th Ward Ald. Roberto Maldonado and some community members, organizers announced that they would move the festival south to Douglas Park, a West Side public park near the borders of North Lawndale and Little Village. Ald. George Cardenas (12th) welcomed them with open arms, and Humboldt Park community organizers did a few victory laps, and the matter seemed mostly settled.

Now a group of activists, some from Humboldt Park and some from the community surrounding Douglas Park, say they don't want Riot Fest coming to Douglas Park, either. They're holding a community meeting about Riot Fest at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, at the St. Agatha Catholic Academy on Douglas Boulevard to discuss their problems with the fest and take the temperature of the community.

"How do you feel about Riot Fest coming to Douglas Park?" The Facebook event asks. "Is is a blessing or curse?!"

Though the activists appear to have turned Riot Fest into gentrification's whipping boy, they insist it's not about Riot Fest, but rather the communities its organizers keep choosing.

"My initial reaction was, how are the ambulances going to get to and from the hospital at Mt. Sinai, one of the only trauma centers on the South and West sides?" said Sara Heymann, 30, who created the Facebook group No Riot Fest In Douglas Park three weeks ago in response to the news of the move. As of press time it had just over 230 members. "I'm not sure how they thought that was a good idea."

A Riot Fest spokeswoman told Chicagoist that organizers have been talking with community leaders to plan how the festival will operate without impeding hospital activities.

Heymann criticized Ald. Cardenas for green-lighting Riot Fest's move without seeking community input first. Samie Martinez, a legislative assistant to the alderman, told Chicagoist that there were no community meetings held in advance of the agreement because the alderman had to move fast.

"There was a risk of having the event go somewhere else, and we're hoping it's an economic revenue generator in our ward," he said. "That area is a good location for it because it's very close to the train, and in case of emergencies it's very close to the hospital. A lot of people have expressed positive feelings about Riot Fest. There are some negatives and some positives."

Among her concerns, Heymann said she thinks the event is too pricey for members of her community, many of whom are living below the poverty line, and that the park is one of very few accessible public green spaces they have. She also worries Douglas Park could be closed for longer than the three-day festival, if weather conditions mirror the rain and muck that Riot Fest faced last year.

That perfect storm of inclement weather, unsettled grass and thousands of visitors resulted in about $182,000 dollars in damages to the park,which Riot Fest paid for, and required the city to keep a damaged portion of Humboldt Park closed for several weeks.

Riot Fest organizers say they have been talking to community leaders around Douglas Park since announcing their move.

"We are excited to work with the people in the neighborhood to pull off an event that is beneficial to them and one that they can be proud of," Chris Mather, a Riot Fest spokesperson, said in an email. "In fact, we would love folks to share with us what is talked about at the meeting—concerns, questions, requests, etc."

Mather also said the damages to Humboldt Park have been overblown.

"The park was only closed for the three days of the concert, the clean-up was immediate, and the damage frankly was due to the rain and bad drainage systems in the park," Mather wrote. "So, we are anxious to correct this misinformation so that we can get on to talking to the community about how to make this event work best for them and the city of Chicago."

Heymann said she and a handful of community members will be lobbying the local aldermen, State Sen. Martin Sandoval and local politician Jesus "Chuy" Garcia for a contract between the community and Riot Fest that would spell out how the community stands to benefit from the move. And ultimately, she'd like Riot Fest to move to either a more permanent, privately-operated venue or a place like Grant Park, "which is not in the middle of a neighborhood."

But so far Heymann also hasn't contacted fest organizers, besides a Facebook message to an account claiming to be a Riot Fest employee, which never responded. While going to the source and trying to work with Riot Fest leaders first before organizing against them seems like an obvious solution, it's not the approach this group has taken.

Organizers who protested Riot Fest's presence in Humboldt Park say they are also standing by.

"Riot Fest is trying to do to their community what it did to Humboldt Park, which is basically sneaking in," said Rousemary Vega, a Humboldt Park resident and member of Grassroots Illinois Action. She connected with Heymann after seeing the Facebook group and offered to help.

"We're not gonna lead the fight, but we're definitely going to be behind the fight and stand in solidarity with the fight," Vega said. "It is our neighboring community, and if we believe as organizers and as park lovers that this is not right for Humboldt Park, then it's not right for Douglas Park."

Grassroots Illinois Action has been behind various West Side causes, including the struggle to re-open the Humboldt Park Beach and some efforts to increase affordable housing options in Humboldt Park. But even as the group prepares to stretch its oppositional force south to Douglas Park, Amisha Patel, its executive director, said the organization has no plans to protest any other local music festivals. That means Pitchfork and North Coast, which both call Union Park on the Near West Side home, and the many music fests of Grant Park and Millennium Park, have their blessing.

If it seems like Grassroots Illinois Action is picking on Riot Fest alone, Patel says that's because Riot Fest poses a disruption for low-income communities that those other fests don't.

"There are residents there who are not happy. That has happened in Humboldt Park, and it looks like it is happening in Douglas Park," she said in an interview. "Montrose Beach [where the Wavefront Music Festival took place in 2013], Union Park, they each play different roles in their communities. We clearly stand in support of low-income residents and also other residents who agreed this is a fight for access to their park."

While Union Park borders the up-and-coming Near West Side and tony West Town, it's also the closest public park to several lower-income neighborhoods immediately to its south and west, including the once-blighted public housing site that is now home to the United Center. It's not North Lawndale, but neighborhood household incomes around there are still less than half the city median, according to 2010 census data. What makes it a more acceptable site for a music festival than Douglas Park and Humboldt Park?

For all the rallying against it, gentrification is still hard to pin down; it's skewed by intersecting forces, and sometimes those who benefit from it most are the last to see it's happening. And as we've seen on the horizon with The 606 in Bucktown and Humboldt Park, sometimes projects designed to improve a community, like an expensive new park, can have the unintended effect of driving up property values and pushing out poor neighbors.

But we're betting it will take a lot more than a three-day music festival to make Riot Fest the harbinger of West Side gentrification. (How much exactly? We would say a United Center-sized project, but even urban renewal experts are skeptical of its long-term effects on the community; it may have even slowed gentrification.)

The fight against gentrification and the city's increased privatization of public resources will be complicated and long; but Riot Fest may have unwittingly become the easiest short-term target.