NORTH LAWNDALE — When Riot Fest moves its music carnival to Douglas Park, revelers attending the three-day music festival might come face-to-face with the neighborhood’s harsh reality.
There’s no easy way to say it.
Douglas Park is surrounded by open-air drug markets — where dealers sell white heroin, weed, cocaine, crack and occasionally PCP, and defend their turf with guns — that terrorize the neighborhood, police statistics show.
For instance, a faction of dope-dealing Gangster Disciples called “Trell Mobb” claim a corner of Douglas Park and the sidewalks and alleys near Roosevelt Road and California Avenue as their turf.
Over the last 12 months, that’s been a hot spot for selling — and using — white heroin, according to police crime statistics.
And between May 2014 and last month, there were at least 20 gun-related crimes ranging from felony possession to armed robbery in and on the sidewalks surrounding Douglas Park, according to police data.
A few blocks west of Douglas Park, near 19th and Kedzie, there’s another popular dope spot where police made dozens of drug arrests related to the sale and possession of white heroin, marijuana and cocaine in the last 12 months, according to police data.
It’s the kind of criminal activity that neighbors have learned to navigate that Riot Fest patrons should probably consider if they they wind up searching for street parking when the festival comes to town the weekend of Sept. 11.
Some people might argue that Riot Fest’s former home in Humboldt Park is located in a gentrifying neighborhood that has a notorious history of gang and drug problems, too.
But during the last 12 months, drug and gun crimes in and around Humboldt Park pale in comparison to the criminal activity that’s plagued parts of Douglas Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.
In Humboldt Park, police made only 18 drug arrests — all of them for possession of marijuana — within a block of Humboldt Park, and there wasn’t a single gun-related crime during that time, according to police data.
Riot Fest organizers declined to answer questions about whether crime in and around Douglas Park presents safety concerns for this year’s festival.
Festival spokeswoman Chris Mather responded only with a statement: "At any large event, safety is a concern, but we are committed, as we have always been, to doing all we can to ensure those attending the festival are safe and able to have the most enjoyable experience possible."
Newly elected 24th Ward Ald. Michael Scott Jr., whose ward includes Douglas Park north of Ogden Avenue, said concerns about public safety aren’t limited to one weekend in September when thousands of music fans are expected to flood the neighborhood to see performances from No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Merle Haggard, Ice Cube, Iggy Pop and Billy Idol, among others.
“We have safety concerns not just about Riot Fest, but also for community residents who live there daily. But I think Douglas Park is safe enough for Riot Fest … at night and during the day. I live there. I know. I drive through my community every day, and there are pockets where crime is a little bit more rampant than other places,” Scott said.
“The challenge is making sure individuals living in the community are more diligent reporting incidents and feel more comfortable reporting incidents and working with police to slow down this drug traffic. This is an epidemic that’s not isolated to the 24th Ward. … We all have to work with law enforcement to curb problems in the inner city.”
Scott said one thing the neighborhood has going for it is that newly minted police Cmdr. Francis Valadez, whose former district included Humboldt Park, has coordinated security plans with Riot Fest organizers in recent years.
“One of the great things about the commander is he’s done Riot Fest before. We talked about it and he’s mapping out a plan to make sure it’s safe,” Scott said.
“The commanders in both the [Ogden] and [Harrison] districts are committed to changing the perception as well as the crime statistics in North Lawndale. Riot Fest coming to the ward will bring more attention and more resources and more opportunity for residents,” he said.
That appears to be an uphill battle, according to police statistics.
A recent 12-month survey of community “concerns” shows that more than 60 percent of resident worries were related to gangs and drug sales in the Ogden District now under Valadez’s command, according to the police website.
So far this year, the Ogden District has reported seven murders — that’s two fewer than all of 2014. And in the first six months of 2015 there have been 31 criminal sexual assaults — 10 more than in 2014, police data shows.
To put it in perspective, overall crime in the Ogden District through May 24 has already topped the total number of crimes reported in 2014 by 12 percent. Indeed, reported vehicle thefts, aggravated batteries, burglaries, robberies and thefts so far this year have nearly matched 2014 totals in each category.
Despite repeated requests to interview Valadez or other top police officials made over several days, Chicago police refused to address questions regarding drug and gun crimes surrounding the park and strategies to provide security during Riot Fest.
Riot Fest organizers have submitted a permit request to host the festival at Douglas Park, but a Chicago Park District spokeswoman said the request is currently under review.
So far Riot Fest organizers haven’t said publicly where the festival stages will be located. Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said it's likely the concert will be staged in the soccer fields on the south end of the park between Ogden and 19th Street, which are located in his ward.
And Ogden Avenue — the unofficial dividing line that separates African-American and Hispanic gangs — means something in that part of town, the alderman said.
“It’s a big park. It’s divided into African American [to the north] and Hispanic [to the south]. Now, what does that mean? It’s just how the park is divided. And most of the crime is on the north end, and that will not have an impact on Riot Fest,” Cardenas said.
“Yes, we know there is drug use and drug-dealing markets we deal with on and off, but it’s near Roosevelt … and that’s a long way, almost a mile, from 19th. The north end there’s a lot of empty lots. It’s hard to police. The crooks and people committing crime take advantage that no one is looking or no one gives a damn. It is how it is. It’s not that way [on the south end of the park.]”
Indeed, there are significantly fewer gun and drug crimes near the south end of Douglas Park, which is next to Mount Sinai and St. Anthony hospitals and a block from the Pink Line stop at California.
But in the Harrison police district, which covers the south portion of Douglas Park, crime has spiked overall.
There already have been more robberies, aggravated batteries and vehicle thefts in the district so far this year than there were in 2014. Additionally, there have been nine murders and 37 criminal sexual assaults so far this year compared to 16 murders and 41 sex crimes reported in 2014, according to police statistics.
Even though many of the details regarding Riot Fest security and parking issues have yet to be sorted out, Cardenas said there has been talk about opening remote parking lots near Western and Damen avenues for concert-goers driving to the festival as an alternative to parking on neighborhood side streets.
The alderman also said he hopes most folks come to the festival by bike, bus or the Pink Line L train at California, just a short walk from the park.
“One of the big selling points of Douglas Park is the Pink Line. It’s a block away, and we can move hundreds of people within minutes, and you can get Downtown in about 10 minutes,” he said.
Ultimately, both Scott and Cardenas said they expect Riot Fest to help improve the quality of life in the North Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods.
“This is a good thing. Not every event has to be in Grant Park or at Northerly Island. We need to move our mentality to think about the neighborhoods and invest in the neighborhoods. And this neighborhood has been somewhat forgotten,” Cardenas said.
“Riot fest is going to be like when you have friends coming over. You clean up to make a good impression. I think Riot Fest is going to prop us up a little more, and when people look at the neighborhood they’re going to see the good here,” he said.
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