By Lynda Lopez
The Riot Fest saga continues. A few days ago, over a dozen community members against Riot Fest (along with a smaller pro-Riot Fest contingent) turned out for the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners meeting. Several Humboldt Park community members passionately expressed why they feel Riot Fest shouldn’t be allowed back in Humboldt Park. The reasons varied from children being unable to use the park for weeks after the event to the permanent ecological damage it inflicts. Hearing them tell their stories strengthened my resolve in standing by all the community members speaking out for their park.
For me, this effort is less about anti-Riot Fest than pro-public parks. When a private music festival is able to assert so much control over a public park, we have to question whether we have defeated the purpose of public parks for the people. Riot Fest may be apologetic and reaffirms its commitment to fixing up the park after each festival, but why should we let an entity destroy a park so completely that it needs so much fixing?
Riot Fest constantly reiterates the argument of the festival being “revenue-generating” but in the times I’ve heard them speak, they’ve always almost skipped over discussing the park to discussing how much money there is to gain. This is a key difference in the manner this argument is framed by the two sides and it makes it easy for me to know which side is on the right. At the meeting, I heard them say “revenue-generating” and “economic benefit” as a way to avoid truly addressing the concern of Riot Fest being unsustainable to a residential park. We can’t compromise our park for the promise of economic development.
Coupled with Riot Fest’s disregard for the park is their disrespect for the larger Humboldt Park community. While those against Riot Fest used their testimonials to discuss their commitment and love for their park, pro-Riot Festers used their time at the podium to brand the anti-Riot Festers as foolish. As they offered their comments, they looked at us as a teacher looks at a child that has done something wrong. One man stood up and waved all these papers with figures to denounce everything we had brought up, as if stats and figures on a paper somehow delegitimize the testimonials of the residents. He then added, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Yes, because this matter is simply a case of a group of people choosing not to get along with another. According to him, we just need to stop being so stubborn and get along with our neighbors. Pay close attention to that messaging and what that says about their perception of the community. It brands the larger community against Riot Fest as childish. For an all-white group to consistently address a group of mostly people of color in this way tells me there is little respect for long-time residents of color. While Riot Fest works to cast long-time residents as ignorant, it seeks to cast itself as the hero of Humboldt Park.
In Riot Fest’s view, Humboldt Park needs saving from all its ills and Riot Fest is that savior. “Humboldt Park cannot thrive without Riot Fest.” I heard this message again and again. Riot Fest believes it is remaking Humboldt Park for the better, while the long-time residents speaking out against them just aren’t smart enough to understand the economic benefits or are simply too selfish to see beyond their own interests. One Riot Fest staff member said to me, “Before Riot Fest, people were afraid of Humboldt Park. Many people didn’t even know it existed. We opened their eyes to this neighborhood,” he said. Spike Lee would call this a classic case of Christopher Columbus syndrome. I replied, “Humboldt Park existed for a long time before your festival. Is your intention only to bring new people in?” Part of Riot Fest’s views on economic development rests on the idea of attracting all these new people, while not understanding (and probably not caring) about the implications for residents that can no longer afford to live there. “There are new condos and townhomes, but that’s not gentrification. It’s evolution,” he said as he waved his hands in the air, as if gentrification was a mythical force. That was my cue to leave this conversation. For someone aligned with Riot Fest to have such an ignorant opinion about gentrification, displacement, and neighborhood change just goes to show how little they understand Humboldt Park beyond their music festival.
The few times I have interacted with Riot Fest staff members, I’ve seen the same disrespect and condescending attitude towards the residents expressing concerns for their park. They work so hard to brand us as the uncooperative group, but perhaps they need to evaluate how their behavior perpetuates the disdain the community has for their presence.