A youthful crowd tossing a garbage bin, as if it's a beach ball, at Lollapalooza, one of Chicago's many music festivals| Photo by Morgan Elise Johnson [The TRiiBE]

For most of the year, North Lawndale is devoid of tourists and Chicagoans who live outside of the West Side. Food deserts and fears of gun violence keep them away, except for a couple of summer weekends when music festivals such as Riot Fest and Summer Smash set up shop in Douglas Park, bringing tens of thousands of people with them.

All weekend long, these summer festivals fence off the public park, rip up the grass and back up traffic on surrounding streets. Meanwhile, festival attendees get to exist in a vacuum, cordoned off from its impoverished surroundings so they can party without giving a second thought to the community’s needs. 

Then, the festivals and their followers leave the area as quickly as they came — and North Lawndale goes back to being the neglected community it’s been since the 1968 uprisings following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“People go to these festivals for one weekend, but we’re here year-round,” says Haman Cross, an artist and instructor on the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s arts and culture subcommittee. In his role, Cross leads beautification projects in the West Side community, including the recent redesign of the mini golf course on the north end of Douglas Park. 

“Those festivals bring in a lot of income,” Cross continues, “and I’m left wondering, well, how is Douglas Park benefiting from that?”

His question hits hard after a violent weekend in North Lawndale, where 17 people were shot within the span of two hours. Of those victims, seven were shot during a drive-by in Douglas Park, just weeks after Lyrical Lemonade hosted its Summer Smash rap music festival in June, which generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. 

In September, Riot Fest will return to Douglas Park for the fifth time.

As North Lawndale continues to grapple with ongoing violence, and decades of disinvestment, residents can’t help but wonder: how long will the city allow music festivals to exploit Douglas Park without addressing the systemic issues plaguing the community?

“Because we’re sharing the space, how can we do something that’s fair [and] equitable? Something that creates more of a balanced type of benefit for everyone?” Cross says. ”It’s an opportunity to make things better.”

Soon after this year’s Summer Smash, some Douglas Park residents turned to Facebook to express their frustration. A Facebook page, “Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park,” posted pictures of the aftermath. There were puddles of mud and patches of dead, flattened grass where the Summer Smash stages once stood.

Residents created the Facebook page in 2015 when punk rock festival Riot Fest landed in Douglas Park after being kicked out of Humboldt Park due to community pushback. Members of the page didn’t like Riot Fest invading their park, and they haven’t been fans of Summer Smash, which made its debut in Douglas Park last year.

Gloria Talamantes, a Douglas Park resident and single mother who follows the Facebook page, says festivals do more than damage the park. 

“It also messes with our quality of life,” she says.

For Talamantes, the sudden influx of traffic makes her late to pick up her son from school. She’s also seen how Riot Fest disrupts the daily routines of other residents, from elders who take walks to the park to her own family members who have had to stay at the nearby Saint Anthony’s Hospital during the crowded festival weekend.

“They just need to find somewhere else the same way they found Douglas Park when they got kicked out of Humboldt Park,” Talamantes says about Riot Fest. “I don’t think it’s fair that they looked for a Band-Aid fix instead of finding a place where it’s a little more adequate to have that type of festival.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Riot Fest left Humboldt Park because Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) was unsatisfied with their cleanup efforts in 2014, which cost $182,000. Despite this, Alds. Michael Scott (24th) and George Cardenas (12th) welcomed Riot Fest to Douglas Park with open arms, announcing that the festival would bring jobs and economic investment to the area.

Cardenas’s office told The TRiiBE in early July that Riot Fest has been a good community partner, bringing around 150 temporary jobs each year and engaging the community with donations to neighborhood organizations and more. Additionally, Lyrical Lemonade is taking care of the damages done to the park during Summer Smash. The Chicago Park District is still estimating this year’s restoration fee for Summer Smash, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Scott’s office did not respond to The TRiiBE’s requests for comment. In the past the alderman also has spoken out in support of Riot Fest, citing its policy of free entry for residents and hiring staff from the community.

But residents say these jobs leave when the festivals do, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that festival organizers pay for park permits go into the Chicago Park District’s general fund; so it’s unclear how much of that money makes its way back to Douglas Park or the surrounding North Lawndale community.

Some residents believe that the money could be put to good use by supporting anti-violence efforts — the kind that could have prevented the shootings in Douglas Park and North Lawndale last weekend.

Father Larry Dowling of St. Agatha Catholic Church, which sits just west of the park, agrees. He says he would be more supportive of the festivals being held in Douglas Park if the community saw tangible contributions that would uplift the neighborhood as a whole.

“I’ve never been a fan of it, especially bringing something called the Riot Fest in a community that was devastated by riots back in the 1960s and 70s,” Dowling says.

While festival organizers foot the bill for cleanup — and Riot Fest’s Douglas Park Beautification Initiative recruits volunteers for a few days in exchange for free tickets — it’s not always timely, making the park inaccessible to locals for weeks or even months afterward. Plus, as Cross points out, cleaning up after the mess they make isn’t a favor; it’s the bare minimum.

“That’s a given,” Cross says. “You should clean up after yourself. But you’re benefiting from our land, from the land that we live on, from the land that we share. I think time and space are kind of like these natural resources. To me, you’ve got to give back.”

While some community members like Talamantes want the festivals gone, Cross says the situation could be a win-win if residents offer concrete solutions and festival organizers follow through on them. But none of this is possible unless Alds. Scott and Cardenas bring both sides to the table. 

If the festivals took an interest in developing the arts culture in the area, Cross says, North Lawndale’s young people would benefit, and the community might be more supportive. 

“I wonder, if these musicians were aware of the conditions of the area around where they come and perform, would they want to contribute?” Cross says. “My experience with most human beings has been if you show someone how they can help, usually people help. Sometimes people don’t help because they don’t know how to help or where to help.”