Douglass Park Community Forum Sparks Music Festival Controversy

A Chicago Park District community forum Wednesday night in Douglass Park on the West Side sparked controversy over the debate over major music festivals that occupy the park for much of the summer.

Hundreds of people attended the listening session at Douglass Park Fieldhouse, 1401 S. Sacramento Ave., one of several department plans to hold across the city, park officials said.

Participants signed up for two-minute speaking slots to share their questions, concerns and suggestions regarding the management of the park. Attendees had red and green cards to show support or disagreement with speakers provided by Únete La Villita, a local organization that wants festivals scrapped, in an attempt to drown out the sound reverberations in the cavernous space.

Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño, CEO of Amad, opened the meeting with invitations to “look ahead and see how we want to transform.”

But as her opening remarks went on, she continually referred to what one speaker would later call “the elephant in the room”: the growing movement to remove music festivals from Douglass Park.

Indeed, almost all of the comments came from residents speaking out for or against the festivals. Green cards sprang through the room as the first speaker, Denise Ferguson, pleaded: “What will it take to get the mega festivals out of our parks?

The majority of those who spoke wanted them removed, filing complaints about lack of access to the park, disruption to two nearby hospitals, traffic, parking tickets and failure to reinvest money in the park.

Aldus. Monique Scott, 24th, said she was disappointed to see how much of the conversation focused on festival money and how it is used.

“I don’t have my say or my position (on festivals),” she told the Tribune after the event. “I wanted to know more about what could be done in Douglass Park.”

The cards only helped keep the noise at bay for so long, as the crowd booed and heckled those speaking out in favor of the festivals, prompting Escareño to step in on their behalf on several occasions. An ongoing dispute between Escareño and a participant nearly resulted in his dismissal, as she repeatedly asked him to be respectful.

Concert supporters spoke of the benefits to local businesses, safety and jobs.

Yolanda Armstead has spoken out in favor of Riot Fest because she enjoys the job opportunity. Having children with special needs in her care, the two weeks of work close to home helps her save money to support them.

Armstead also said Riot Fest provided connectivity between employees, as she pulled Amanda Garcia, who also spoke as a festival worker, under her arm for a hug. “They’re very connected, you’re not just an employee,” Armstead said.

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Ana Solano, organizer of Únete La Villita, said she was surprised by the turnout. Most of the arguments for the festival were nothing new to her, she said, and she hopes the Park District will act on the complaints against the festivals.

“We need more than just a listening session, we need action,” Solano said. Únete La Villita said it collected 900 signatures in person and 2,000 signatures online in a petition to remove major music events from the parks.

Solano later added that she thought the Park District could have done more in terms of accessibility during the forum. While statements were made in Spanish and English at first, the rest of the meeting was mostly in English, she said.

Wednesday’s listening session follows protests by community organizers against the growing music celebrations.

Earlier in August, a Riot Fest event organizer resigned after a heated meeting in response to a new Park District demand.

Riot Fest, which opens Sept. 16, the last of three paid music festivals there this year, will begin setting up nearly two weeks before the music starts.

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Melvin B. Baillie