Oust Riot Fest from Douglass Park? Some neighbors want music festival to stay

Riot Fest is now over, but the debate over whether it should stay in Douglass Park or find another home remains.

Since 2015, when the three-day music festival was moved to its new location from Humboldt Park, many residents and community groups have spoken out against it, saying it restricts access to a public park, clogs traffic and brings parking problems. Others, like members of the Mt. Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, welcome the fest and attendees, and say those demonstrators seeking to oust the fest are missing the big picture.

“I don’t think they see the totality of it. I don’t think they see the opportunities that it brings to the community,” said Shameka Barnes, administrative assistant at Mt. Bethlehem.

The church, located at 2625 W. Ogden Avenue, about two blocks from the festival gates, offers a large spread of food for sale that has become a favorite of many festivalgoers since Riot Fest arrived at Douglass Park.

Vendors set up shop along the streets leading to Riot Fest.

Bob Chiarito/For the Sun-Times

“I’ve been coming here before and after [Riot Fest] for the last three years,” Elisa Shumer, a 26-year-old Bridgeport resident, said Sunday shortly after the last set of the night. “It’s a ton better than the food inside and a lot cheaper, too.”

Graduate student Casey Long, a 30-year-old from Ithaca, New York, agreed with Shumer, saying the food from the church hit the spot.

“It’s been a long day and these tacos are awesome. I’m so glad I spotted this place,” Long said.

Along with Long and Shumer, several dozen people waiting in line were looking over items in Sterno trays, which included tacos; nachos with chicken, beef or buffalo chicken; Italian sausage; mostaccioli; fried chicken wings and legs; and, for dessert, coconut-lime lemonade cups or snowballs. Items ranged from $3 for chicken legs to $8 for Italian sausage with bell peppers, chips and water or pop, to $15 for three “fully loaded” tacos.

Shameka Barnes (second from right) and other volunteers from Mt. Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church prepare food to sell outside Riot Fest in Douglass Park on Sunday.

Bob Chiarito/For the Sun-Times

While the church could not provide numbers on how many customers it serves every year or how much money it raises from the sales, Barnes did note that everything is made inside the church’s kitchen, which is licensed by the city. She added that “everything is made with love” and the money earned allows the church to put on picnics for the community, provide programming for residents and church members six days a week, and stage events like back-to-school giveaways for children in the area.

Barnes also said church members have never had a problem with anyone attending Riot Fest and would hate to see it leave Douglass Park, and not just because of the money they raise.

“We love it. It’s exciting for us. I don’t want to see it go,” Barnes said. “We get to interact with people from different places who come back every year. We’ve had people from the UK and from Australia. It’s been awesome.”

She also said the eight to 10 church volunteers who work the stand also provide a safe space for those who may have had too much to drink inside the fest or need help getting home because they’ve lost their phone.

“We don’t judge; they are there for a good time,” Barnes said. “If someone stumbles, we catch them and make sure they are OK. We’ll ask if they need a ride because some don’t know how to use Uber or they lost their phone or their battery is dead.”

A few blocks from Mt. Bethlehem, vendor Raheema Lewis brought a tent, tables, barbecue and other supplies in a U-Haul truck to the park near the northwest corner of Sacramento and Ogden Avenues and was selling hotdogs and cheeseburgers. A former restaurant worker, Lewis offered that on a good festival day she could pull in as much as $2,000 — money she’s saving to open her own restaurant.

Barnes said some people in the neighborhood have exaggerated how long the park is shut down to the public.

As part of its ongoing and in some cases year-round mission to help make the neighborhood proud of the festival, Riot Fest each year offers free tickets to residents within a four-block area of the festival grounds, a community job fair that employs nearby residents to work in various capacities over the course of the festival, and has since 2010 featured Chicago Coalition for the Homeless as its charity partner.

As for complaints about traffic and parking problems from some residents, Barnes had some helpful hints.

“There are so many routes you can drive. You have California. You have Western. You have Cermak and Ogden, so there are a lot of different options,” she said. “Some people just like to complain.”

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