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< Chapter Four | Stories List | Chapter Six >

The making and unmaking of Dufferin Grove Park.

A summer serial, August 4, 2011, Chapter Five

Jutta Mason

Recap: Chapter One: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things all wrong, says the current management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). The way it is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” So a new supervisor has been placed there, whose job it is to return the park to the core activities that the City has traditionally run. This summer, she’s dissecting out the traditional activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.”

If the “anomalies” are going to be eliminated, sanitized, or commercialized, it’s time to write down the story of how they grew up in the first place. Memory is short. Maybe if there’s a record of how the trial-and-error approach shaped Dufferin Grove Park in its current form, then – as these “anomalies” fade away – future park users will have a reference. Down the road, some readers may want to use this story to pick up the thread and continue, if a time comes when a new wind blows from neighbourhoods into City Hall.

The anomalies described in the first four chapters were: (1) the Dufferin Mall donation, (2) the neighbourhood phone survey, (3) the making of the sandpit/adventure playground, (4) the ice cream man as our first youth worker, (5) the beginning of the campfires, (6) the “Safe City” award, (7) the follow-up rule, (8) the 1920 “playground movement” history, and (9) the outdoor ice rink. This chapter is about anomaly #10, the building of the first bake oven; and anomaly #11, the community renovation of the rink house into a park clubhouse.

From the 1995 Annual Report: 1995 was the third year of the Big Back Yard, and the related activities elsewhere in Dufferin Grove Park. The “Safe City” award we got in October 1994 gave us a taste for what you can do with a little extra money, so before our 1995 programs started we asked for money from six places, and were rewarded with a “yes” from all but one. (The fine short video that Amnon Buchbinder filmed for us in 1994 helped show funders what we were doing.) We got funds from the Trillium Foundation, the Ontario Social Development Council (Child Nutrition Project), the City of Toronto “Breaking the Cycle of Violence” program, the Maytree Foundation, and the Dufferin Mall. With our budget six times as large as in the previous two years, we learned that extra money demands an exactly corresponding amount of extra effort to spend it well.

Anomaly #10. The bake oven.
The Child Nutrition Grant was supposed to help us figure out how to find better lunches for the growing number of park kids who came with no lunch. No ghettos, though – food for whoever was in the park. We had already learned that campfires pull people in, if they involve food. Then, at the Toronto Reference Library, I came across a short documentary film of village life in the Douro region of northern Portugal. There was a four-minute account of the revival of a crumbling outdoor wood-fired community bake oven. The story reminded me of my mother’s memories of damson plum season in the suburb of Berlin where she grew up. The women would take their big trays of unbaked yeast-dough plum cakes down the street to the neighbourhood baker and get them baked off in his wood oven. My mother still remembered the wonderful aroma tickling the noses of the kids, she and her friends, sitting on the curbs as the baked cakes were carried home.

The women went to the baker’s wood-fired oven because, my mother said, it was common knowledge that a wood oven made a tastier cake. I asked everyone I came across in the neighbourhood, what do you know about village bake ovens? Could we have a communal oven in the park? The response surprised me. In contrast to the previous years’ objections to the sandpit playground and the basketball court, the bake oven seemed to have no enemies. Everyone had a story – from Trinidad, from Greece, from Uzbekistan, not only Portugal – almost always involving their grandmother and the bread she baked, the best bread you could ever imagine. The park kids told the same kind of stories from back home in the Acores, so did the retired Italian construction workers from Calabria who played cards in the park for hours, so did the elderly Polish people having their reunion picnic. People’s eyes misted over. But when I asked anyone for details on how such ovens are built, they said they couldn’t remember.

I talked to Mario Zanetti, the City’s Director of Recreation, who had been friendly and helpful before. He gave me the phone number of a former bricklayer who now worked as a City of Toronto building inspector. The inspector said he’d be glad to give advice, if we could come up with some plans to show him. But we didn’t know where to get such plans (this was before Google) – until a baker in Kingston called us, saying one of his customers had told him we were looking for bake oven information. Small world! He said he had built a very useful outdoor wood-fired bake oven, using the oven plans sold by an Australian-Californian named Alan Scott, who had a company called “Ovencrafters.”

We called Alan and sent away for the plans. When they came, the building inspector looked at them and said they were very good. He also told us that the 6x4-foot-hearth oven was too small to come under the building code. We arranged for the park supervisor and the recreation supervisor to come and have a look at the spot where we wanted to put the oven. They had no objections, and the Child Nutrition Grant officer said it would be fine to use our grant to pay for materials. The news spread through the park, and prompted more family bake oven stories.

So we marked out the spot and found a neighbourhood contractor, Nigel Dean, willing to try his hand at building the base. For the oven dome itself, we located a specialist in masonry ovens from Quebec, Norbert Senf, and arranged for him to come and help. Our anti-violence grant supplied the labourers. But the three young gangsters on the grant soon proved to be more trouble than help, threatening to beat up the contractor if he let the cement-mixing get in the way of their smoke breaks. So they didn’t last. But we were lucky. A young man named Dave Miller (no relation to our former mayor) had started coming by to pitch in, saying he was very curious to see how an oven was made. Soon he took over being Nigel’s helper. The Italian card players acted as a kind of chorus, expressing their doubts or disapproval whenever they felt the plans were wrong or the mortar was mixed too wet.

When it came time to shape the refractory cement for the outside of the dome, Nigel parked his little truck next the oven and modeled the dome shape to conform to the outline of the truck’s cap. Geoffrey Parkin, a dog walker in the park, watched over the curing cement with an eagle eye to make sure that no one put their initials on it while it was still wet. He couldn’t stay at the park all the time, so he made a big sign to hang on the snow fence barrier. On the sign he painted a nuclear reactor logo, and DANGER in big letters. He said that vandals might be stupid enough to believe the sign. Perhaps they were, or maybe they just didn’t notice this little construction site in time. At any rate, no damage was done to the oven dome.

But when we got to the stage of making the oven housing we realized that we would need more bricks than we had calculated, and we didn’t have enough money. The Parks materials-yard had concrete blocks they were willing to give us, but they had no bricks. So I had to go hat-in-hand to the neighbourhood construction companies. Most of them said they couldn’t donate anything. Then our luck kicked in. I got a sympathetic hearing from two brothers who owned “Dominion Coal and Lumber,” six blocks from the park. The next afternoon, their truck was at the park to deliver a pallet of donated bricks, 600 of them. The Maytree Foundation agreed to give us an emergency grant of $700 so we could buy more insulation and shingles. With these extra gifts, on September 8, 1995, the oven was finished. Here’s an excerpt from “Cooking with Fire in Public Space”:
Dave Miller stuck a bundle of twigs in the oven on top of some newspapers, struck a match and then – by glory! The oven was lit. The flames flared up and started spreading back. The Italian men were walking round and round the oven, exclaiming and muttering. All of us looked at each other and laughed, and slapped each other on the shoulders, and laughed, and scratched out heads. It didn’t really make sense, but here it was. A real bread oven, far from Calabria. Real smoke coming out of the chimney.

The mayor of that time, Barbara Hall, heard about the oven and let it be known that she would be the right person to “open” the oven if we wanted to have a little ceremony. We settled on October 7, and she came. It was raining, so she gave a little speech inside the rink house, about love and community and how she felt the bake oven would allow the expression of both. Most people couldn’t hear her because the maze of the interior dividing walls allowed no gathering space. But afterwards the clouds divided a little and showed some blue, and bread was baked and musicians made music outside. We hadn’t learned how to bake good bread yet (that took another three years), and it was lumpy and dark on one side. But it smelled and tasted so good that every bit was eaten.

A month later, when the bread-baking was showing a bit more promise, we put together a basket of our better loaves and went to “Dominion Coal and Lumber” to show our gratitude for their donation. But there was a “BUSINESS CLOSED” sign on the gate. A passerby who seemed to know them told us that the company had received an order to tear down their solid new storage building because it didn’t conform to the latest requirements of the building code. But the owners were tired of the game, he said, and didn’t want to spend the money to rebuild their storage. So they shut down the business.

That made us sad. We had intended to bring them bread over a long time.

Anomaly # 11. The rink house renovations.
The Dufferin Grove rink house, completely rebuilt in 1993, had too many walls and not enough windows. During rink season, it was impossible for the rink staff to keep an eye on whatever foolishness might be going on in the separate, walled-off change rooms. Parents couldn’t stay warm and watch their kids out on the ice at the same time – there were no eye-level windows to the outside. (All the windows started three meters up.) The retired Italian construction workers, who had begun to use the rink house every day to play cards, were jammed in by the wall in the boys’ change room. When the mayor came to give her speech in October, she had to stand in the hall.

I asked Tino, our new recreation supervisor, how can we get rid of some of these walls and make a more usable room? He said, talk to the director. I called Mario Zanetti, and he sent out a building inspector.

We showed the building inspector the two concrete-block walls we wanted to be taken out, to make one big, flexible-use room. We asked him – if these walls are removed, will the building fall down? He showed us the big steel beams holding up the roof. The interior walls were not bearing walls. They wouldn’t be hard to remove, he said, but it would be expensive. He estimated that for the City to remove the smaller wall that blocked the staff’s view into the girls’ change room (about ten feet long) would cost $6000. The bigger wall, separating the two change rooms, would cost about $10,000. I can see that it would be a good idea, he said. But you’d better get busy fundraising.

We didn’t want to use our time to have bake sales; we wanted to work with families, to get them back into the rink, dilute the youth ghetto, mix it up, bring all sorts of people together. We had a key to the building, and we’d tried to make it as nice as we could, but it was not a pleasant space to be in. Everybody told us – great idea, a clubhouse with one big community room – but taking walls out will cost money that the City doesn’t have.

We wondered how you remove a concrete block wall. One weekend a park friend came with a spike and hammer to try out a technique he had heard. If you just chip away the mortar, a construction friend had told him, you can lift the block right out and start on the next one. A few of us came over to watch. It was really easy.

So we took out the smaller wall. It took four hours for five of us. Suddenly the view into the girls’ change room had opened up. The whole place looked bigger.

When we confessed what we’d done, there was some finger-wagging at City Hall. But at the same time we had the impression that the city staff got a bit of a laugh. The story spread. Everyone knew that the change made sense, but no one had thought there was a way to make it happen.

The city sent in a carpenter to fix the edges where the wall had been removed. Then we asked for an interior window in the staff office, facing the change room, so that the staff could see what was going on in there. That window was put in by a city crew, without any mention of the cost. We called our city councillor, Mario Silva, to come out and have a look. We asked him, would he be willing to get his Council colleagues to approve money to put four eye-level windows into the rink house, two in each room, so people could see out, and parents could watch their kids out on the ice? And could they be windows that opened, so the building could get some air circulation in the summer? He said, I’ll see what I can do.

He came through for us. The city hired two window installers and they had it all done in two days – four windows, each with a quarter section that opened. Suddenly the outside world reappeared, in this formerly sealed-off concrete capsule which had looked so much like a prison holding-cell.

The windows were so useful that we knew we had to go the next step. One Saturday morning in October, ten park friends came to the rink with gloves and overalls and dismantled the middle wall separating the two change rooms. It took longer than the first time, to loosen and take down all those blocks – almost 12 hours – but as the wall got lower and lower and the window on the other side of the wall came into view, it was a thrill to see the red leaves of the maple tree outside. Finally, the rink house was one good room, allowing a community clubhouse.

Over the next several years, a few more changes were made, piece by piece as they were needed or as money came available. The window openings were too small to let in much air, so we used the final $700 Dufferin Mall donation to get a carpenter to replace one of the windows with casements. The grandmother of a little skater donated a Maytag stove, so the rink house began smelling like cookies baking instead of only stale hockey bags. In 1996 the City gave us a “Food and Hunger Action” grant to convert the office, and the slop room across the entry hall, into two halves of a community kitchen. The same year, we sent the Maytree Foundation an old photo from the 1930’s, showing a woodstove in a general store with people gathered around it: would the Foundation be willing to fund a woodstove for the rink house? To our delight, they were willing. When it was installed, the city paid for a little wrought iron fence around it, for safety. The fence had an extra bar for drying wet mittens, used countless times since then.

The rink change room’s fluorescent lights were ugly and made people look greenish in the evening, so we begged $1000 of track lights from Home Depot. They said no, at first, and then changed their minds and presented us with the lights on St.Valentine’s Day. The softer, focused lighting made a huge difference in the long winter evenings – people stayed and played chess, and more youth started bringing their dates on Fridays. After skating, they could drink hot chocolate with their girlfriends and watch the flames in the woodstove together. Then in 2003, the City gave us another kitchen grant to add a second small kitchen in an unused alcove in the zamboni garage. That addition was a bit more complicated, so the G.H.Woods Foundation topped it up with an $8000 grant to let us finish. The second kitchen made Friday Night Suppers possible, and its proximity to the bake ovens (we added a second smaller oven in 2000) reduced the public health officials’ qualms about food safety.

In this way the existing 3-month-a-year rink house was changed into a small year-round neighbourhood clubhouse. This happened without a middle man, architect or otherwise – step by step and piecemeal, as useful changes suggested themselves to park users and rink staff, and as City or Foundation money became available.

The reason all these changes were needed is that the building was designed for a single purpose – skating – and even that function was given its narrowest possible range. Skaters were meant to come into the building and change from shoes to skates, then go outside and skate, under the on-and-off supervision of rink guards, then come back inside and change back into shoes and leave.

This single-use rink house acquired new possibilities when the changes were made. People came into the rink house and sat down in the big room with their friends, talking and drinking hot chocolate and slowly getting their skates on. Out on the ice, they played shinny hockey for hours and then they got hungry, and went back inside and ate mini-pizzas or soup, and drank coffee. Parents sat in front of the woodstove with their children, reading them storybooks. The old men played card games for hours, and got their coffee for free, “since we worked so hard for this country.” Sometimes musicians brought their instruments, using the echo-y concrete blocks to good effect. There was enough room to fit in a farmers’ market eventually, when it was too cold to have it outside along the path. On those days, the zamboni parked out on the basketball court, to make room for more farmers in the garage.

In spring, summer, and fall, the clubhouse became a staging area for dance festivals, outdoor theatre, and cultural events. Park staff and volunteers used the kitchens to turn out snack bar food and Friday Night Supper meals and café snacks and miles of park cookies (if they were laid end to end). All this food became the heart of an ever-expanding number of social encounters, spreading throughout the park. Once in a while, there was even a beer permit and the (re-christened) zamboni café had kegs on the counter.

A choir rehearsed in the main room most Sundays, cheering the dishwasher crews, and giving free park concerts in return for the practice space. Dozens of community groups used the clubhouse for meetings, about speed humps, about the forced amalgamation of the “megacity,” about bike lanes, about endangered bees. There was room to do a huge neighbourhood “clothing swap” once a year, and to set up a “tasting fair” with farmers’ market food cooked by local chefs, and to nurse hundreds of hungry babies, and to sometimes make up a bed for homeless park visitors. Children painted pictures in the clubhouse on rainy days. Youth came to borrow basketballs or build skateboard ramps. These youth, and younger kids too, knew that they could come into the clubhouse to seek the staff’s protection, if there were bullies or fights.

One way that all this liveliness would have been stopped before it started is if the City had charged a permit fee for people to use the building, or for programs offered there. But the rink house was an orphan at the start. Nobody (including our little group) thought that the free availability of the space would layer so many activities and encounters on top of each other. It happened because we had more or less unencumbered use of public space: essential for that sociability and new friendships to begin.

I’ve told the story of taking the walls down a number of times. Each time there is a gasp. The story shocks people. Some listeners seem to think it represents a David-and-Goliath battle against bureaucracy. Others say it’s a disgraceful example of the lack of a proper consultation process with a long list of stakeholders. But we just wanted to make it work. What shocks me is not that we adapted the clubhouse ourselves, but that so many similar existing park buildings are not freely available to their neighbourhoods in the same way.

Post script: the money story
1. Unused park buildings: Dufferin Grove Park has two small park buildings, a field house and a rink change house. There are at least 157 such buildings in other city parks, some much grander than ours (like at MacGregor Park), some very simple. Most of those buildings are used only a few months a year. Others were locked up ten or twenty years ago and are never used. Some are renovated on the outside to look nice, but the inside is only used to store extra trash cans, like at Greenwood Park.

2. State of poor repair: When City planners earmark funds to keep park buildings in a “state of good repair,” they can miss the mark by a lot. At MacGregor Park, $134,000 in “Stimulus Project” funds were assigned in 2010 to replace all the doors and windows, with no funds to address bad basement leaks that would eventually bring the building down. It took a great deal of community pressure to change the plans.

3. Unreasonable fees: When park users try to put a locked-up park building back into good use, there are often great difficulties. Most of the time, park users are told that the lack of money or the building codes are insurmountable obstacles. If the park users are very determined, they may still get somewhere, although it usually takes at least a decade. Neighbours of Sorauren Park formed a group called the “Wabash Building Society.” They lobbied and raised money for years, to turn their locked park building into a community field house for the neighbourhood. In 2008, the field house was beautifully renovated, for $360,000. Who gets to use such a building then becomes the big question. The same Sorauren neighbours who stood out on the street corner collecting money are required to pay a permit fee to use the building for neighbourhood events. On top of that, they’ve now been told to pay for a city staff person to disable and later on restart the building alarm every time they meet there. Such fees turn people off. The building gets much less use than it could have.

4. Costly mall-style community centres: Small park buildings can help turn parks into cheap “community centre without walls.” Or, instead, the city can build new community centres with walls. Two that are currently under construction cost $20 million and $27 million. Most capital funding for such centres comes from debt. In 2011, $409 million of the city’s operating budget goes to service the city debt. As well, there are high operating and maintenance costs.

5. Cheap community centres: The Dufferin Grove adaptation costs were as follows: Wall removal clean-up: est. $1000. Observation window in office: est.$800. Windows: $8000. Casement window: $700. Track lights: $1000. Woodstove: $3500. Installation and cast iron fence: $700. Inside kitchen: $6925. Maytag stove: $750. Zamboni kitchen: $28,000. Total cost: $51,375 ($2500 spent by PFR directly; the rest, donations and grants, and volunteer labour).

Summer Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), This story is at:

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