Chicago street fest time! Do you have to pay the suggested donation?

Technically, no, you don’t have to pay the “suggested donation, but it’s not like you’re ‘sticking it to the man’ by cheaping out on the 5 bucks.

So the festival site says a “suggested donation” huh? Sounds like a free entry rather than an entry fee. Which it is. Despite whatever the bitter, blow-hard of a volunteer ticket-taker tells you, it is not a mandatory admission fee.

Chicago street fest

Chicago street festival (image via

To require an admission fee for a public Chicago event would require another pricey permit… on top of all the other permits the city requires for a neighborhood street festival. Hosting a street fest is a damn expensive endeavor. Example: the upcoming Six Corners BBQ Fest (June 16-17) has a pricetag of about $100,000, $3,000 of which is Chicago city fees. The “suggested donation” helps to cover the cost, with the rest being pitched in by the neighborhood associations and various vendors. All in all, if the street fair breaks an even budget, it’s considered a success. So don’t go thinking that your 5 bucks is going toward Rahm’s re-election campaign or bailing out corrupt cops. For the most part, it all goes back into the community hosting the fest.

Taken from the Old Town Art Fair site:

“Q: Where Do The Proceeds From The Fair Go?
A: Right back into the Old Town community! In 2009, the Old Town Art Fair raised almost $100,000 for a host of local youth groups, schools and neighborhood improvement projects. We rely on neighbors to manage and staff our event. This reduces our administrative costs and allows us to pass along more money to community organizations.”
Still, even though it is going to a good cause, it is not mandatory by any means.

All that being said, it should be noted that some of these festival volunteer money takers do not seem to know any of this and enforce the donation as mandatory. In my experience, the festival gatekeepers tend to fit more along the line of post-menopausal angry librarians or retired post office employees…
A post on EveryBlock Chicago highlights what I am referring to:

“Too many street festivals treat their “suggested donations” as a mandatory payment and set up lines and gates to try to trick people into paying. Many times, festivals are very aggressive about getting your money, say that entrance requires a “mandatory donation,” and actually prevent access to the public space.”- via McKinley Parker on

No, this isn’t always the case, another post on the same site read,

“No one at Do Division’s entrances were strong-arming anyone. Just one security guard yelling “$5 donation, goes to the schools” over and over. Plenty of people walked right on in, immediately spending that $5 on cheap beer instead. :)”

So how do you get in for free with Mr. Do-Right running the gate?

street festival chicago

Getting in free to Chicago street fests (image via

Well, I usually pay if I’m going for a full afternoon/evening or seeing the bands, but if I just happen to be in the area looking to kill an hour I generally don’t like to throw down a full $5. And you can get by even the most hard-ass, high-school-hall-monitor-cliche without picking a fight. Here’s some favorites I like to use at the festival gates:
“Oh, I already paid over there, but I didn’t get a hand stamp/wristband.”
“We’re not here for the fest, we just wanted to get lunch at [nearby restaurant].”
…or you can just bypass the gate completely, there’s usually some opening somewhere.

Suggested donations are not mandatory, but they’re not all that expensive either. And it goes to a good cause. So pay up if you got it. But don’t take any shit if you don’t.


  1. Ohhh so that’s where my money goes!!! I feel better about the “suggested donation” thing thanks for enlightenment :)

  2. I don’t got it. I’m living large on the poverty line and five bucks is valuable cash for a much needed falafel. I smile big and say “No thanks!” then walk tight on past the gate keeper, that is if a Walgreens parking lot or side street is not available.

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