Shrunken Taste tied to arts equity, lower drain on police resources, top city official says

Taste of Chicago once lasted 10 days, including the July 4th weekend. But with hundreds of CPD vacancies, it’s hard to justify a long summer showcase that requires taking police officers from neighborhood districts.

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People enter the 2019 Taste of Chicago on Columbus Drive at Monroe Street in July of that year.

People enter the 2019 Taste of Chicago on Columbus Drive at Monroe Street in July of that year.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The decision to shrink Taste of Chicago to a “bite-sized” three July days in Grant Park—preceded by three neighborhood Saturdays in June — was as much about lessening the drain on diminishing police resources as it was about arts equity, a top mayoral aide said Thursday.

Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Erin Harkey acknowledged that Taste of Chicago was once the city’s premier food and fun festival. It spanned 10 days, including the Fourth of July.

But that was before a tidal wave of police retirements left a demoralized and overworked Chicago Police Department with more than 1,000 vacancies struggling to tame an unrelenting crime wave. Homicides last year surged to levels not seen in a quarter century.

Against that backdrop, it’s difficult to justify a 10-day summer showcase in Grant Park that requires siphoning officers from neighborhood police districts to avoid what happened in 2008.

That’s when a surge in violent crime boiled over at the Taste, with four people shot, one fatally, as the crowd from the July 3 fireworks show was dispersing.

On Thursday, Harkey said the pandemic-induced shutdown of Chicago’s special events gave her department the “luxury” to challenge the “assumption that success only looks like going back to exactly what we did before.”

Developing a strategy that “not only focuses on the downtown, but seeks to uplift all Chicago neighborhoods” was part of that discussion. But so was easing the burden on precious police and fire resources.

“There are definitely smart, strategic considerations in terms of how to best utilize our resources, which are just not programming resources, but staffing resources as well,” Harkey told the Sun-Times.

“All of those kind of tactical staffing requirements certainly factor into the decisions that we make in terms of what’s best at this time.”

Erin Harkey, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Erin Harkey, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

City of Chicago

Still, Harkey said she does not envision a day when the incredible shrinking Taste of Chicago disappears entirely.

“The idea that there is an anchor in the downtown core, and that there are neighborhood events surrounding that, is actually kind of a beautiful concept,” she said.

Milwaukee has long had an 11-day Summerfest on a permanent and dedicated lakefront site. The annual event is a showcase for music, art, food and dance.

Could Chicago someday do the same — say, at Northerly Island or Navy Pier — to provide a similar showcase for music, art, food and dance?

“That is certainly possible. ... Everything is really on the table,” she said.

Food trucks drive around the Buckingham Fountain during the launch of the pandemic-influenced Taste of Chicago To-Go on July 8, 2020.

Food trucks drive around the Buckingham Fountain during the launch of Taste of Chicago To-Go on July 8, 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Harkey replaced her newly-retired boss, Mark Kelly, just in time to oversee a $26 million cash infusion in arts and culture included in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 budget. The money was intended to help local artists and venues recover from the pandemic.

That includes a first-ever, $10 million commitment from the city’s corporate fund that will help shield the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events from a repeat of the devastating budget cuts tied to its dependency on hotel tax revenues. That revenue stream tanked during the pandemic.

With international tourism and conventions still a shadow of what they once were, Harkey said there is an “expectation” the $10 million corporate contribution that got her department to “a more stable place” will be “not only this year, but ongoing.”

And long before federal coronavirus relief funds dry up, Harkey said it “behooves us … to investigate other public and private sources” for the arts.

That includes revisiting Lightfoot’s still-unfulfilled campaign promise to raise Chicago’s highest-in-the-nation, 17.4% tax on a hotel room to provide more grants to struggling artists.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a champion for the arts who bankrolled an amusement tax waiver for neighborhood theaters and concert venues with fewer than 1,500 seats by raising the amusement tax on major concerts from 5% to 9%.

Lightfoot promised to reexamine the amusement tax with an eye toward removing “artificial barriers” for neighborhood organizations. But she hasn’t done that, either.

“Most of our … entertainment venues are focused on downtown and the North side. There’s certainly a lack of what we would call traditional cultural infrastructure on the South and West Sides,” Harkey said.

“So anything that we can do in terms of how to incentivize the development of … music venues, theaters in those communities is something that we need to do. Those types of incentives or programs that make it easier for the little guys to emerge — we definitely need to look at that.”

To make a dent in Lightfoot’s ambitious goal of restoring music and art in every Chicago Public School, Harkey is hoping to duplicate in Chicago the youth internship program that worked so well during her days at the Los Angeles Arts Commission.

She also talked about the need to develop a “marketing and awareness campaign” to convince Chicagoans and visitors alike to support live theater and music venues again. That’s likely to include a heavy presence at O’Hare and Midway airports.

“Wouldn’t it be lovely, in addition to the large marketing campaigns, if, as you came into O’Hare, that you actually experienced a snippet of a live show? Wouldn’t that be enticing for our visitors?” she said.

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