After years of damage and disruption, Douglass Park residents want Riot Fest to relocate

By Amina Sergazina, Staff Reporter

Douglass Park is fenced off in order to begin preparations for Riot Fest. Photo courtesy of Denise Ferguson.

With Riot Fest taking place this weekend, the community surrounding Douglass Park is unhappy with its continued occupation of and damage to the park.

Únete La Villita, a volunteer organization in Little Village, held a press conference on Tuesday against large for-profit festivals, just a few days before Riot Fest weekend. Residents are demanding the city and festival organizers relocate festivals to private venues like Wrigley Field or the United Center.

Douglass Park is occupied by festivals like Summer Smash, Heatwave and Riot Fest from June through September. Even though the festivals typically run for only a few days, the preparation lasts for weeks and clean-up can take even longer. During that time, the rough condition prevents residents from enjoying the park, and repairs are not done until after Riot Fest in the fall — the last festival held there each year.

Sixty-nine-year-old Denise Ferguson, a retired director of the Advisory Council on Women for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, has lived near Douglass Park her whole life and goes there at least four times a week. She calls her neighborhood “a slice of heaven” where people of all races own homes for many generations, eat together, play games and listen to a wide variety of music, “from mariachi, to Mozart, to Motown,” she said.

“Most of my life was spent west of the park; as you know, Chicago’s a very segregated city, and when I was young, Blacks were not allowed east of the park,” Ferguson said. “In [1971], when they passed the housing act, my mom was able to build a house across the street where I currently live.”

But during summer festivals, the slice of heaven turns into hell for local residents. Ferguson said alleys are covered in feces and urine, cars are parked anywhere and everywhere and the noise interferes with hospitals’ quiet zones.

“You could park on a fire hydrant in my neighborhood during Riot Fest and any of those major festivals, and no one — not representatives, not Chicago Police, no one — is coming to issue tickets,” Ferguson said.

The Chronicle reached out to Riot Fest management, but they declined to comment.

Riot Fest issued a statement in August to the Chicago Sun-Times after a former Riot Fest contractor quit following a heated public meeting with residents.

“We have been in Douglass Park since 2015, and we consider it our home,” the statement read, also noting festival organizers would be incorporating feedback from residents when possible.

Resident Christina Xu has been living with her husband, two children and two dogs near Douglass Park for four years. Xu said she and her family go to the park almost every day and love to play frisbee with their dogs. But during the festival season, the park is closed almost all the summer, and Xu is forced to limit her dogs to short walks around the neighborhood on a short leash.

“The park we feel not belonging to us anymore,” Xu said.

Every year, Riot Fest gives out free tickets to the residents around Douglass Park and organizes the beautification of the park.

“It seems like everything that they’ve done is to just shut out the community and then sprinkle these little things to be like, ‘Look you can go to this fest that you never asked to be here,'” said Sara Heymann, a member of Únete La Villita. “I don’t want to go to that fest; I want my park.”

After debuting outdoors for the first time in 2012, Riot Fest relocated from Humboldt Park to Douglass Park in 2015 because of similar activism from the community’s residents. Heymann thinks the relocation to their neighborhood is racist because Riot Fest’s target audience is upper-class white people.

“For [Riot Fest] to come into a Black and Brown low-income area, fence off one of our very few resources and use it for their own private game is racist,” said Heymann, who has been a Lawndale resident for 15 years.

On Saturday, from 2-8 p.m., the local community will hold a free music festival on Cermak Road and Marshall Boulevard with local artists and vendors called “People’s Music Fest.” The festival is a protest and an example to the city of what residents around Douglass Park want to see in their neighborhood.