Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Taste of Chicago - A Riot Waiting To Happen?

I attended the Taste Of Chicago this past Saturday with my girlfriend in hopes of catching the Santana/Los Lonely Boys concert happening there, as I am a fan of both bands. Now, I have avoided the Taste for the past 24 years, as I normally don’t feel the need to fight a million people just to get a slice of pizza. This year, however, I gave in and was hoping to spend a pleasant day at the lakefront with the future Mrs. Mike, get some sunshine, and generally take in all that is summer in Chicago, which I succeeded in doing, for the most part. The main problem I had with the event was the totally uncontrolled crowd scene in the seating/lawn area of the Petrillo Bandshell. Conditions were allowed to exist that could have led to another of the crowd disasters that have occurred in recent years here in Chicago (E2) and elsewhere (Rhode Island nightclub fire).

Walking through the food portion of the Taste was crowded, but do-able. There were tons of people, but everyone was moving along and seemingly enjoying him or herself. The problems began to appear once we tried to venture into the actual concert area. As we entered, people coming out of the seating area were warning others “Don’t go in there” and “Good luck getting through”. We should have heeded their advice. The paved footpath that leads through the concert grounds was completely blocked by two directions of foot traffic colliding with the line of people waiting for seats in the pavilion and by many other people just standing there as if the only walkway through the event was their private campground. The result was an absolutely insane, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd scene that was impossible to go through and was several hundred yards long. We fought through it all the way across the lawn in the vain hopes that we would be able to get out the other side. Unfortunately, the City fathers, in their infinite wisdom, chose to not have an exit on the far side, at least not one we could see. Instead, the path horse-shoed around and led to the back of the lawn. By the time we discovered this fact, others were discovering it, too, and were just as unhappy as we were. People were beginning to yell at the path-blockers to get moving and were clearly getting agitated. I began to entertain thoughts that this could get ugly real quick, as the crowd was meeting an impassible barrier and had nowhere to go. Finally, a couple girls in front of us broke off the path and started walking across the picnic/lawn area, through people’s blankets and lawn chairs, to escape. I grabbed my GF by the hand and followed, and proceeded to snake through strangers’ personal space until we could get to a clear spot on the path around the other side, past the traffic jam.

My question to the Taste planners and city government in general is this – Why was such a potentially dangerous situation like this allowed to exist? Why was there no attempt at organizing and controlling what went on inside the concert area? All it would have taken was one fight, shoving match, or short temper to set the whole thing ablaze. Don’t forget about emergency services, either. If someone had needed medical assistance or an ambulance, they would have died before any emergency personnel could have made it in to help them. It’s not like there weren’t enough police and other workers there. The problem was that they all seemed to be on the perimeter of the event, as if they did not even want to enter the crowd. In light of the many problems and deaths associated with festival seating going back many years (anyone remember The Who tragedy in Cincinnati where, I believe, 11 people died?) and the E2 and Rhode Island incidents where many folks died because adequate exits were not available when trouble erupted, the crowd scene at the Santana show was unfathomably negligent and could have resulted in a large number of deaths and/or injuries. Now, I am no stranger to crowds. I have attended rock concerts since the Poplar Creek days of the early 1980’s, lived many years in crowded city neighborhoods and attended their festivals, and felt secure in most entertainment environments I have found myself in. I am just amazed that the City let such a potential powder keg like this knowingly go on. The funny part of it is that, on the other side of Michigan Ave., a blues trio was playing on the street and people were stopping to watch. I saw a uniformed policeman directing people to not stand in the middle of the sidewalk, so that it remained clear. There were maybe 40 people there, total. Why wasn’t any of that concern shown for the hundreds of thousands of people inside the Taste itself?

The concert/nightclub business has come under fire in recent years due to practices that did not always have their patrons’ best interest in mind. Concert promoters have faced major increases in insurance and security costs as a result of incidents that have occurred where people have been injured or died. It is hard to believe that after all of this, the City and whatever promoters were involved have learned nothing and are still willing to put at risk the very people who foot the bill for events like this in the first place. Someone in charge of the Taste was on TV the night of the Fourth saying that the Santana show was one of the highest attendance days for Taste in history. Were it not for the cool heads of my Chicago citizens (much love) and a little bit of luck, Saturday, July 2, 2005 could have gone down in history as one of the biggest, preventable tragedies in Chicago history. Imagine if the temperature had been in the 90’s, like it had been all week, and tempers had been a little shorter. Feel safe thinking about that? Do you think the City really cares if you live or die? I know that they don’t. I, for one, will never attend another Taste concert. I value my own life, even if the City of Chicago doesn’t.

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