First things first: What if the tornado sirens had gone off when 75,000 people were in Grant Park last Friday, Saturday or Sunday?
Certainly I'm not the only one who had that thought the day after Lollapalooza, when I rushed to the basement on Monday night during the severe thunderstorms that swept through Chicago, after the tornado sirens went off for the first time I recall in the 18 years that I've lived in this city. (Born in raised in Jersey City and Hoboken, the whole Dorothy/Toto/shelter-in-the-storm cellar routine was a new one for me, and not a little unnerving. Tornadoes aren't supposed to hit cities, right? I mean, outside of Oklahoma?)
How could Grant Park have been quickly evacuated if all of those people needed to leave and seek shelter?
I posed the question to Chicago Police Department spokeswoman Monique Bond.
"The City's Evacuation Plans are handled by the Office of Emergency Management & Communications (OEMC)," Bond said. "There is an evacuation plan in place and when there are large scaled events like the Taste, Lolla, etc., OEMC is activated and prepared to implement the appropriate emergency plans if needed."
And what, exactly, would those plans be? Bond referred me to Jennifer Martinez, the public information officer at OEMC, who returned my call but never answered my question.
"All of our evacuation plans are event-specific, so they change, and obviously, for security reasons, we don't release those plans, just because we don't want someone who may want to cause harm to us to give away here's what we do and here's how you can impact us," Martinez said. "But the planning does go across multiple jurisdictions for every event, and Lollapalooza was no exception."
In other words, the city would like to assure us that it has a plan, but it doesn't want us to know what it is, which makes absolutely no sense: Wouldn't everyone be better off if they knew where they had to go if they had to get there in a hurry in the event of severe weather and amid the general crowd chaos and confusion that would surely accompany any mass evacuation?
"OEM has a plan, and we constantly work with the National Weather Service," Martinez repeated. "We were tracking that storm for a few hours. We're constantly in touch with the National Weather Service, and we have plans in place if they're necessary. We absolutely contacted Wrigley Field that night so they could make sure that people were moved into the interiors of [the stadium]."
It seems fairly obvious that people near the two stages in Butler Field at the northern end of Grant Park would be herded into the underground parking garages directly to the north below Millennium Park, much as the bleacher bums were ushered inside Wrigley Field. But where would the tens of thousands of people in Hutchinson Field to the south--the location of Lollapalooza's marquee stages and the site where Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Kanye West performed--go if they needed to get there in a hurry? It's more than a mile to the Millennium Park garages, and a four-block walk, part of it over exposed railroad tracks, to the hotels and office buildings on Michigan Avenue, which couldn't possibly accommodate a crowd half the size of those that saw Radiohead or Rage Against the Machine.
"OEM has a plan," Martinez said for the third time. And for the third time, she repeated that she could not tell anyone what it is.
As for the Chicago Police Department's eye in the sky...
The more time's passed, the more I've wondered about exactly why the ostentatious observation vehicle that officers on the scene called "the Mobile Surveillance Unit" and that the logo on its side labeled the "ICX Tactical Platform" had been deployed at Lollapalooza--and Pitchfork before it--especially given that officers at Grant Park made no effort to curb the many fence-jumpers at the concert, quell the flying wedge of gate-crashers during the Rage Against the Machine set or stop the numerous pot-smokers and falling-over drunks inside the park at any time during the concert.
(The official tally of arrests is minimal, with 7 for disorderly conduct and drinking on a public way on Friday; 8 for the same reasons on Saturday and one for ticket scalping on Sunday, according to the police department. This doesn't mean the arrests weren't ugly; see this report by Time Out Chicago's hard-working bloggers.)
Why was this mobile observation platform in the park at a rock concert?
I posed the question to Bond.
Photo by Marty Perez for the Sun-Times
"Not sure what you are referring to as the mobile observation platform," the police spokeswoman replied via email. "We do have a piece of equipment that we have been testing called the 'SkyWatch' that we have been deploying at the Lakefront events. There is no official reason other than to constantly test and implement different equipment and technology to enhance our security operation. SkyWatch has the capability of monitoring large scaled crowds and communicating with the boots on the ground."
Boots on the ground, eyes in the sky: Even if the billy clubs never started swinging, it's all still eerily evocative of the police riot that greeted the Democratic National Convention in Our Town 40 years ago this month, leading to the famous trial of the "Chicago Eight" and a lingering stain on the legacy of the first Mayor Daley as well as the notion of free speech in this fine city. Read up on it, kids. Read and weep. (By the way, I'm not old enough to remember any of that: I was three when it happened.)
The last word on Lollapalooza... until 2009
Following the first three years of the reinvented destination festival, I cited a list of complaints where I felt the promoters could do much better to provide the concert Chicago deserves, from eliminating the sound bleed by having fewer but better programmed stages, to cutting back on the V.I.P. areas (which seems to have been a big part of the problem in creating bottlenecks for the regular customers as they tried to escape the chaos on the field during Rage Against the Machine) and corporate sponsorships (and at this point, it's really the artists' fault for living with them; did Rage or Radiohead even think to ask to remove the AT&T flag that flew over their heads? Or were they just too eager to cash their paychecks?)
This year, I'll simply quote my colleague Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune, who wrote:
The new challenges facing Lollapalooza became more apparent as the weekend progressed. A sold-out show doesn't always guarantee a successful one. This year, the festival was able to rise to the challenge but it's clearly maxed out--it can't get any bigger. As they map out next year's Grant Park gathering of the rock tribes, promoters and the city should ponder this question: Would fans be better served with fewer but stronger bands, fewer stages with less overlap, and a capacity of 60,000 people each day instead of 75,000? For Lollapalooza 2009, smaller may be better.
And this anonymous poster from the Sound Opinions message board:
Complaints about this year:
1. Too many bands. At the end of the day I feel like a went to a three day physical incarnation of a CD sampler. Less is more. Stop just buying blocks of talent to make up for a loss of vision.
2. Garbage. Everywhere. Disgusting.
3. Sound bleed. This should go along with #1 when it comes to a solution. Less bands would bring less likelihood of sound bleed. Really, when it even happens during the headliners you know you have a problem.
4. More water. Never enough.
Lollapalooza has three more years remaining in the five-year contract that its lawyer, Mayor Daley's nephew, negotiated with the Park District. And from now through 2011, Chicago should get the Lollapalooza it deserves.