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Was AAHH! Fest Too Loud? Neighbors' Complaints Lead Ald. To Propose Changes

By Stephanie Lulay | September 29, 2016 5:32am
 The crowd reacts to MC Lyte's performance at Aahh! Fest in Union Park in 2014.
The crowd reacts to MC Lyte's performance at Aahh! Fest in Union Park in 2014.
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DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay

NEAR WEST SIDE — The return of Common's AAHH! Fest! to Union Park received a mixed reaction from neighbors on the Near West Side. 

At issue: the noise coming from the hip hop music festival, particularly Sunday night's shows. While some neighbors living near Union Park called the weekend music fest par for the course, others reported the festival's amplified sounds could be clearly heard a mile away from the fest. 

For West Loop resident Melissa Hill, who lives near Washington and Throop about two blocks east of Union Park, the "unbearably loud" festival prompted her to call police at 9 p.m. Sunday. 

"We had to leave our home because the music was that loud in our condo, even with the windows closed," she said. "I made two calls to 911." 

May Toy, who co-chairs the Neighbors of West Loop's Park and Green Space committee, said the fest was progressively louder after 8 p.m. Sunday. The noise was so loud at Ashland and Jackson — about four blocks south of Union Park — that she decided to record the music on her phone and play it back, "just to illustrate how loud it was." 

"I don't think there's a reason that it needs to be so loud that you can hear it that far away," she said. 

One neighbor reported that sounds from the Sunday night fest could be heard at Racine and Harrison in Little Italy — a mile away from the festival. 

Speakers from the AAHH! Fest stage were pointing at neighbor Jeff Johnson's condo located a half-block away, but the noise level wasn't out of line with other festivals held at Union Park, he said. 

The noise "was no worse than the other fests and was over earlier than the other ones," Johnson said. "Foot traffic and stragglers after were low as well." The fest ended promptly at 10 p.m. Sunday as required by the fest's permit, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) said. 

Erin Henry, who lives near Washington and Loomis, called her neighbors' AAHH! Fest complaints "appalling." She's never had an issue with excessive noise coming from concerts, and it's fun to be so close to the fest action. 

Complaining about the loud music via email chains between neighbors is one thing, but calling 911 is "absolutely disgraceful," she said. 

"The general response of owners in the area is to call 911," Henry said. "Our city has real emergencies ... Hearing some music before you go to bed at night is not an emergency." 

A representative for AAHH! Fest did not respond to questions this week. 

Formal complaints 

Burnett said his office received six formal complaints of excessive noise Monday, more than any other music festival held at Union Park this summer. 

One of those complaints came from a neighbor living four blocks from the festival. Her toddler couldn't sleep because of the excessive sound, she wrote in an email to Burnett. 

"This level of noise in unacceptable. A thunderstorm would be quieter than this concert," the neighbor wrote. "I should not have to be awoken on a Sunday night when I am trying to get ready for an early Monday morning. We all work for a living and pay taxes." 

Despite the complaints, Burnett said that neighbors might not be aware of the festival's positive mission. AAHH! Fest supports Kanye West's Donda's House, which provides access to premium arts instruction to young people, and Common's Common Ground Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the development of disadvantaged youths in urban communities.

The festival also welcomed a host of Chicago acts, including Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Jeremih, hired from the community and provided 2,000 free tickets to kids across the city, Burnett said. 

"AAHH! Fest is the one festival with a conscience," he said. "I would imagine that for the six people who did complain, thousands of people supported it." 

Burnett, who lives on West Warren Boulevard less than a block from Union Park and attends church at First Baptist Congregational Church across the street, said AAHH!! Fest was not louder than other events. Burnett was at the festival Sunday. 

"It wasn't [any] louder than any other festival," the alderman said. 

But in an effort to address neighbors' concerns, Burnett said that he is committed to addressing noise levels at all Union Park music festivals to lessen impact on the immediate neighborhood. 

"I see where they are coming from and I already spoke the Park District and I am talking to all of these festivals to see if we can redirect the sound to the north," Burnett said, toward an industrial corridor and away from the residential neighborhoods. 

David Askew, president of the Union Park Advisory Council, said he did not directly receive any formal complaints about the fest, but was forwarded complaints by Toy. 

"From my perspective, we live in a city of festivals," Askew said. 

The fest's permit required that amplified sound from the fest comply with the city's noise ordinance, according to Chicago Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner.

"From large-scale events to smaller ones, the Park District works closely with event organizers to ensure that neighbors are minimally inconvenienced during these events," she said. "Each event is monitored by staff members from the Chicago Park District.

"The event organizer complied with all rules and regulations for Aahh Fest." 

Four fests, ongoing issue 

While neighbors' latest complaints concerned AAHH! Fest, neighbors have lodged complaints against other Union Park music festivals in the past. Union Park is also home to the North Coast Music Festival, Pitchfork Music Festival and the African Caribbean International Festival of Life. 

Ahead of festival season, Neighbors of West Loop leaders complained that loud North Coast in particular attracted a rowdy, drunken crowd to their neighborhood and creates traffic and parking problems in the area. 

To address neighbors' concerns, North Coast promoters agreed to hire on-duty police officers and added a neighborhood hotline ahead of this year's fest.

Toy, who is also president of the Skinner Park Advisory Council and has worked to mediate fest issues with the Park District, said 13-acre Union Park is a relatively small compared to other parks that routinely host summer music festivals like 218-acre Douglas Park, home to Riot Fest, and 319-acre Grant Park, home to Lollapalooza. 

Union Park "is in an really residential area and there is no buffer," she said. 

As the Park District added more for-profit music fests to Union Park, which straddles the West Loop and Near West Side neighborhoods, there were less summer weekends residents could use the park, Toy said. 

"I think it really started to put stress on the community," Toy said. 

Events at parks across the city help bring much needed non-tax revenue funding local parks and programming, Maxey-Faulkner said.  

A South Side native who has won multiple Grammy Awards and the 2015 Academy Award, rapper Common founded AAHH! Fest in 2014, hosting the first star-studded festival in Union Park that September. After a year hiatus, the festival returned to Union Park this year. 

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