West Side residents have asked the Park District Board to boot the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash festival from Douglass Park so residents won’t be fenced out during Juneteenth weekend.
The hip hop festival has drawn the ire of some neighbors since it launched in 2018 due to issues with noise, parking, traffic, damage to the park and the displacement of sports and youth programs.
But neighbors have an additional concern this year: The music fest headlined by Post Malone and Playboi Carti is happening two months earlier than normal, meaning residents will be unable to use parts of the public park to celebrate Juneteenth. The holiday recognizes the liberation of enslaved African Americans after the Civil War.
Many residents were eager to spend Juneteenth at the park, said Princess Shaw, a Lawndale resident who was planning to throw an event June 19 at Douglass Park. The park was renamed in 2020 to honor esteemed abolitionists Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass.
“What we have seen is that other people can come into our community, utilize our parks and displace us where we are not able to utilize the parks,” Shaw said.
Shaw, who previously spearheaded the Light Up Lawndale holiday events, has been planning since December for a Juneteenth and Father’s Day event. The event was going to be a barbecue that would “have people come out like they used to do back in the day and get the community to just be a community again … and celebrate the fact that we’re able to come together,” Shaw said.
There is added buzz around the holiday this year since it is the first time Juneteenth will be recognized as an official holiday in Illinois, Shaw said.
Shaw had to put a pause on planning the Juneteenth event because of the Summer Smash, she said.
“With the size of that event, it causes other people in the community having events to celebrate Juneteenth … to have to close down or minimize their events,” Shaw said.
It Takes A Village — the school that spearheaded the campaign to rename the park — also wanted to host a Juneteenth event at Douglass Park, but its plans hit a snag since the park was already booked for the music festival. But the Summer Smash organizers helped the school get a permit for another location in the park so its Juneteenth event will still happen, school co-founder Nakisha Hobbs said.
“It’s important for us to be able to celebrate our history and culture in our neighborhood in a significant way on a regular basis … in a space that was renamed and reclaimed by a group of young people,” Hobbs said.
Lyrical Lemonade organizers also plan to help the school pay for the relocated Juneteenth event, festival Director Berto Solorio said in a statement.
Solario makes an earnest effort to keep the festival in the good graces of neighbors, is glad the It Takes a Village event will still happen, Shaw said. But the city’s planning process should prioritize residents and allow festivals to work around the needs of the community, rather than forcing the community to accommodate the schedule of a private company, Shaw said.
The fest organizers do their best to be a good neighbor to the community, said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th). The neighborhood benefits from the festival’s apprenticeship program, free tickets, the park cleanups hosted by organizers and from the economic boost tourists bring, Scott said.
Summer festivals can be an inconvenience, but the revenue they bring to the Park District lowers the cost of sports and programs for West Side youth, Scott said.
“It goes to help subsidize all of our communities,” Scott said.
There are also efforts to make sure the park is fenced-off for as little time as possible, and the organizers work with the city to find alternative locations for programs and events that might get displaced by the event, Scott said.
“If there are people who think it is not being handled correctly, I urge them to have that conversation with me so we can do it the right way, because I don’t want people to feel like the park is not being used to their benefit,” Scott said.
Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons in a statement that the festival’s organizers have gotten the alderman’s input and plan to “provide some benefit with a positive and lasting impact on the park” and neighbors.
Some residents don’t mind the festivals at all. Juanita Areola, a homeowner who owns a commercial property that she rents on AirBnb, gets “a big spike” at the rental during festival season, she said.
“I welcome it 100 percent. I brings in a lot of revenue. Our taxes are high, our utilities are high. In the summer months, I look forward to the festivals because I can survive through the winter off of that,” Areola said.
Street vendors and nearby businesses also benefit from the foot traffic, Areola said.
“The businesses that are along Washtenaw and Cermak … many business fronts are completely vacant,” Areola said. But during the festivals, “those businesses get very busy.”
The economic boost isn’t enough to justify fencing neighbors out of their community park during the prime days of summer, other residents said.
Neighbor Susan Mullen criticized the Park District Board for allowing private companies to profit from public parks, often to the detriment of nearby residents. Mullen joked that renting the parks to private companies “doesn’t go far enough.”
“I suggest we keep the fences up. I suggest Douglass Park be sold to developer to build a gated community. This will bring in a much greater profit to the park district,” Mullen said.
Allowing private companies to profit by using public land has gotten the Park District in hot water elsewhere in the city. Last year, residents lampooned the city’s plan to allow Amazon to install delivery lockers in more than 100 public parks, including one blocking a narrow sidewalk. Amazon was set to pay the Park District at most $137,000 to place the lockers for the first year.
“Why merely rent the park to corporations when it can be sold? And why stop at Douglass Park when there are so many other parks entrusted to you?” Mullen said.
Between Riot Fest and the Summer Smash, the athletic fields in Douglass Park are unavailable for much of the season, said resident Xochitl Esparza.
The festival “robs our youth and family of recreational spaces, sports and programs in the summer. Once school gets out … there are hardly any spaces for our youth,” Exparza said.
The fields are often left muddied and damaged with compacted soil by the festivals, and require long-term repairs, further extending the community’s exile from their park, said resident Sara Heymann.
“Now that Summer Smash is smack dab in the middle of the summer, how does that affect sports this year? If the fields get completely destroyed in June, that means for the rest of the summer no one can use it,” Heymann said.