The Fourth of July is one event that has drawn crowds to Forest Park every year for 43 years.
Held on the grounds of the Park District, 7501 Harrison St., the Fourth is awash in activities from 11 a.m. on: bingo, picnics, music, and a dance recital; people can swim for a discount. The Kiwanis sells beer; there’s plenty of camaraderie.
Then there’s a big firework display that kicks off at dusk. To even get the best spot to watch them, people stake out their territory the night before, said John Doss, president of the park board of commissioners.
Call it one big community party with something for everyone.
But safety concerns – and funding – have led the park board to take a step back and reassess the entire day’s events. The decision to cancel the fireworks was announced Sept. 20. What will happen next has not been decided yet.
It was, for Doss, a third-generation park board commissioner, the toughest decision he and the commissioners have had to make.
“We all were born and raised in Forest Park. It was harder on us. It still bothers me. It was tough, but it was the right one for now,” he said.
The entire party – from bringing in the band, to hiring the fireworks specialist to paying for security – comes out of the pocket of the park district. Some donations also cover the cost. The price tag for the entire event is about $25,000, said Larry Piekarz, the park district's executive director. Fireworks alone cost about $13,000.
But the event has steadily grown in size, particularly in the last couple of years, as surrounding communities and agencies scratch their fireworks displays. In addition to money, this year's drought took its toll on communities that had sponsored similar displays in the past.
The only town in the immediate area that continues to have fireworks on the Fourth is Oak Park.
The crowds in Forest Park have gotten so large, he said, that there might not have even be enough room on the baseball fields to shoot them off legally. Police and the auxiliary squad from Forest Park and officers from other towns – a total of 60 in all – were there to help out with crowd control and traffic.
This year could have been the tipping point. It was hot, around 100 degrees. Crowds were large. Doss said folks had parked their cars on Des Plaines Avenue and sat on the hood to watch the display – even though no parking signs had been posted along the route. Folks also were parking on Roosevelt Road. And in what had been a long-standing practice, people had pulled over on the Eisenhower Expressway to catch a glimpse of the display.
Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas, who was there that night, said it was a rowdy crowd; much of the trouble was caused by juveniles. A couple of fights broke out; someone in the crowd shot off a Roman candle at someone else. After the fireworks, residents returned home but the crowd in the streets had to be cleared and it was difficult to do, Aftanas said.
Cancellation had discussed for about a couple of years, Piekarz said. After this year's event park district officials began speaking with village officials about what had happened.
Piekarz said public safety came up as a real concern. Crowds were moving closer and closer to the site where the fireworks were shot off, creating the potential for injuries.
Doss said he and the rest of the five-person commission began to reconsider sponsoring it.
“We were this close to having a catastrophe,” Doss said. “It was hot there were thousands packed in to see it. We wanted to be pro-active about this.”
Piekarz said it was unfortunate. He loved the fireworks; in fact the whole day.
It wasn’t a popular decision, Doss said. A few people supported the park board. Others were pretty angry, witness some of the comments on the Forest Park Review.
What’s next? Doss isn’t sure.
They haven’t spoken with the village about co-hosting an event at the Grove. The park district site is perfect, Doss said, because everything is right there.
Suggestions from commissioners included cancelling everything to just holding a concert and a picnic on the third.
What to do is still to be discussed, Doss said. But he said the event would not be cancelled forever.
“We are willing to look into anything to bring it back in a couple of years,” he said. “We haven’t ruled out bringing it back. We want to take a break and re-evaluate our plan.”
Tell us what you think Forest Park should do about the Fourth of July.