Ontiveros: A fee for Taste of Chicago? Say it ain’t so!

SHARE Ontiveros: A fee for Taste of Chicago? Say it ain’t so!
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Justin and Bianca Woods enjoy their food from Texas de Brazil while at the Taste of Chicago on July 10, 2016. | Kelly Wenzel/ For the Sun-Times

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Like a bad penny, the idea to charge an admission fee for Taste of Chicago has made a reappearance.

This time it’s being bandied about by Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), a newer council member whose heart may be in the right place – he’d like to funnel the funds back to neighborhood events, according to news stories – but I just can’t go along with his proposal.

The Taste has a lot of naysayers, but I am not one of them. I look forward to it every year. I didn’t make it there this summer, but with a good excuse: the Taste was during the week my mom was dying. For one brief moment that Saturday as I drove back after mom had left this earth, as I neared the Taste I considered stopping for a brief walk-through – and maybe an Italian ice – to lift my spirits. That’s how much I like the Taste.

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Sure, I enjoy the food and the entertainment, but actually they are secondary attractions for me. What I love most about the Taste is how it brings so many diverse Chicagoans together. (And make no mistake about it; while there are tourists who attend, the Taste primarily draws Chicagoans. During the City Council budget hearings, when Lopez floated the fee suggestion, Mark Kelly – Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner – said “over 50 percent of the audience” is Chicagoans, according to a Sun-Times story.)

Nestled there within the confines of Grant Park, the Taste invites Chicagoans to one big yard party, courtesy of the city.

There’s no doubt we’re a city with divisions, but if you do some serious people-watching at the Taste, you witness all sorts of moments when strangers come together. At the little kiddie events, you’ll overhear moms talking to other parents about their adventures in parenthood. Grab a seat in the shade (alright, that may take some finagling) and listen to the seniors – visibly glad to be out of the quiet of their homes – sharing insights with other older Chicagoans. You want to see family values? Watch the crews who travel with three, sometimes four, generations in tow, just to share the Taste together.

I know I can’t be the only one who’s gotten introduced to a Chicago restaurant at the Taste and then tracked it down in its home neighborhood for another meal. It’s always been a great way for small restaurants to expand their customer base.

Sometimes lately I’ll be in the Loop and look around at all the young hipsters sharing the sidewalk and I worry that the rest of us aren’t getting there enough. Lopez may want to finance neighborhood events, but I think it’s really important for Chicagoans to come downtown and remember that the wonderful attractions there are for all of us. The Taste provides that reminder. You look up from a nibble on a rib at our beautiful skyline and can’t help but recognize with pride that you are a part of Chicago, a place that certainly has serious problems yet at its core remains one of the finest cities in the world.

Tacking even a small fee onto the Taste will price the event out of reach for many families, the same residents Lopez would like to serve. It’s a penny-wise, pound-foolish idea.

You’ll lose that love letter from the city to its people. And that would be a real shame.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com

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