Across the country, there’s been a significant increase in the sale of fireworks this summer, with a corresponding rise in night-time noise complaints. Chicago is no different: Block Club Chicago found that there had been a 736% increase in 311 calls reporting loud fireworks over the first half of this year.
In Hyde Park, residents say that the problem is particularly bad in the eastern part of the neighborhood, where people set off fireworks in an interior section of Burnham Park between 53rd and 57th Streets. They also say that there are a number of noisy gatherings in the park, which officially closes at 11 p.m., that continue into the early morning.
But residents aren’t always in agreement on the best path forward — over the past few weeks, two different groups have sprung up, each calling for a different solution. One wants to close parks earlier and coordinate with CPD on a plan to deal with the issue; the other is worried about overpolicing and criminalization of the gatherings, and is instead advocating for a community-based resolution to the problem.
The first faction is represented by the East Hyde Park/Kenwood Coalition, an organization with members from 11 homeowners associations in the two neighborhoods. After meeting with Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) at the beginning of the summer, the coalition put together a pair of petitions, one to the Chicago Park District and one to the city. The former calls on the park district to close the interior strip of Burnham Park two hours earlier, at 9 p.m. (The rest of it is on the lakefront, and therefore closes at 7.)
“[These areas] have persistently served as the daily location for illegal behavior, including, but not limited to, the consumption of alcohol, smoking marijuana, drug deals, setting off industrial sized fireworks and the playing of loud stereo music that disrupts the peace of the neighborhood and imperils the safety of the residents well into the early hours of the morning,” the petition reads.
The petition to the city is more expansive, asking for a meeting with 2nd District Police Commander Joshua Wallace to develop a plan to address the “illegal behavior” taking place, and to follow up on that plan with monthly written reports. The coalition also asks for a meeting with Mayor Lori Lightfoot “to secure her commitment to this course of action.”
“We understand that the City is facing multiple crises, but that is no excuse for the City to abandon the interests of law abiding residents by allowing people to violate the law with impunity to the significant and profound detriment to the community,” the second petition reads in part. “We should expect government to protect the well-being and safety of its citizens. The City has abdicated this fundamental duty.”
David Myles, president of the coalition, says the problem is that CPD’s changeover from second to third watch, which takes place around 11 p.m., means there are few, if any, officers available to disperse crowds at the park’s scheduled closing time.
“They don't even get out into the community until 12, 12:30. So many times, here they come, after people are making numerous calls about the noise,” said Myles. “You keep calling and keep calling, and the police show up after midnight, and then the police begin to close the park down.”
At a virtual meeting last Thursday to discuss the petition, Hairston said that she had a conversation with Lightfoot and CPD Superintendent David Brown, who told her it should be possible to close the park even with a concurrent shift change.
“It was told to me that there is no reason that during a shift change there could not be coverage. The commander needed to stagger the way that they come in so that they could have complete continuous coverage,” she said.
But a second set of residents are worried about using CPD officers at all. The group — primarily made up of people living in East View Park, a condo complex by the corner of 54th Street and South Shore Drive — has been circulating a counter-petition calling for a different course of action, concerned that the demands of the original coalition would result in unnecessary overpolicing of the loud gatherings.
“We, too, are bothered by the noise and trash on South Shore Drive in the summer. Some of us have asked people to turn down music, organized trash clean-up groups, and engaged in other positive, community-building approaches to solving this problem,” the counter-petition reads.
The petition asks the city to “commit to using resources other than police to try to mitigate noise and trash on South Shore Drive in Hyde Park, such as unarmed noise ambassadors, more frequent Park District trash clean-up, etc.”
It also calls for the city to immediately open lakefront parks until 11 p.m., in order to provide a place for people to congregate while socially distancing.
Steven Lucy, who lives in East View and owns Open Produce, the grocery store on 55th Street, helped write the counter-petition — he wants the city to explore options that don’t criminalize behaviors like smoking or drinking.
“Let’s try some other methods. Let’s get some community groups involved, or let’s work on unarmed noise ambassadors. I’m open to ideas. Just throwing more police at the problem seems almost a little tone-deaf given what happened over the last few months,” he said. “If you don’t need armed police, then there should be another resource — either a community organization, volunteer organization, or people who are paid by the city and trained in conflict resolution.”
For his part, Myles said that he didn’t think noise ambassadors are an effective idea. “I don’t know that noise ambassadors would work — they would work only for a minute. I think most people are mindful, but two minutes later, or 20 minutes later, they ratchet the music back up,” he said. “I think the problem we all recognize is that with the lakefront being closed, people have nowhere to go.”
At last Thursday’s meeting, one unresolved issue was procedural — how many signatures does a petition need before it can be said to represent the wishes of the neighborhood?
Lucy said that his group’s petition had gotten almost 50 signatures in East View Park, which has around 100 units. He said that another 100 people had signed the virtual petition that the group had shared on social media, though he wasn’t sure how many of those people lived in the affected area. (All but one said they were from Hyde Park.)
“It's clear from the responses and our tradition and casual conversations I've had that they don't speak for everyone,” Lucy said. “They’re the loudest in the alderman’s ear, but I don't think that they speak for everyone — and I don't even think they speak for a majority of people — in terms of how they would like to address those problems.”
A representative from the original coalition said during last week’s meeting that their petition to close the park at 9 p.m. had 146 signatures. While it’s unclear exactly how many residents live in the area covered by the petitions, there are a string of high-rise apartment buildings — such as The Flamingo and the Shoreland Apartments — along the relevant stretch of South Shore Drive.
Thursday’s virtual meeting became fractious at times — one person was muted after an expletive-filled outburst. Most attendees were in favor of the East Hyde Park/Kenwood Coalition’s solution (the group had organized the meeting), and seemed surprised when a few people, including Lucy, objected to the earlier closure time after a park district representative said that signs had already been made to reflect the change. Hairston will host another virtual meeting Wednesday to continue the discussion.
Lucy hopes the two sides can come to an agreement. “These people don’t want the park to close because they hate parks. They want the park to close because they have a noise problem late at night,” he said. “So I think as long as we can stay focused on that, and avoid focusing on proxy issues like park closing time, I think everyone’s basically on the same team here.”