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Summer story

The unmaking of Dufferin Grove Park.

A summer serial, July 21, 2011: Chapter 3

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.” What are those anomalies? Chapter Two introduced the first three. Anomaly Number One was the role of the Dufferin Mall, which ran a 1992 ad campaign claiming “We are your community” and offered an unpopular corporate donation to the park, to sweeten the pill of the condominiums it proposed to build. The Mall didn’t carry out its expansionist plans after all, but its park donation did lead to some changes at Dufferin Grove. Anomaly Number Two was a two-day neighbourhood telephone survey that was not carried out by an outside consultant. The survey question was: “what would you like to see in Dufferin Grove Park?” The list that grew from this survey was surprisingly simple. The most frequent suggestion was to have more things for older children to do in the park. Four neighbours took the next step, Anomaly Number Three – arranging for the construction of the sandpit/adventure playground. – with a little help from the mayor of the time. This chapter takes up the anomaly story from there.

Anomaly Number Four: The Ice Cream Man

The first summer of the newly christened “Big Back Yard” program at the sandpit/adventure playground was not what we expected. We soon realized we needed some help, and we got it in the form of an ice cream seller. The problem we needed help with was a group of about dozen park “regulars,” mainly Portuguese kids aged 7 to 12. They had come to the park on their own one day and discovered us setting up the Big Back Yard. They said they wanted to help, and came back early every morning all summer, often staying the whole day. They were a pretty rough bunch but also very able, and quite opinionated about what should happen at the new playground.

Elyse, the artist leading the summer activities, had asked the city to put up snow-fencing around the “Big Back Yard” area, to mark out the new place. She went to a second-hand clothing dealer and bought a few bags of substandard but colourful clothes by the pound. Then she and the kids ripped the clothes into hundreds of fabric strips, tied them together, and wove them through the snow fence slats, to make the fence look nicer. Elyse wanted a real doorframe as an entryway. The kids insisted that they could build the frame and erect it themselves. While they were sawing and hammering, a couple of the 12-year-olds got in an argument and went after each other with hammers. A few days later another argument ended with one of the younger boys pulling a switchblade. He chased his cousin out of the sandpit with this knife, and into the back lane, with three of us running behind, shouting at him to stop. No-one was hurt, but we were dumbfounded – who were these young children who had come to help build the playground but also carried knives?

The doorway got built and installed, but we were worried that we were out of our depth.

Lucky for us, the ice cream man started coming to Dufferin Grove Park just around that same time. His name was Fernando. He pushed a solid little stainless steel ice cream cart around the city. It had thick rubber tires and colourful ice cream and freezie posters, displayed in frames on the side of the cart. He said he was from Mexico, and had brought his cart with him when he moved his family to Toronto.

Fernando took his cart to various parks, but as the summer went on, he spent more and more time at Dufferin Grove. He helped the kids with their carpentry, and they helped him with the cart. If he had to go and pick up more supplies, he put one of the kids in charge of the cart, and the kid got ice cream in return for keeping an eye out. Fernando had no permit to sell in the park, and if police came into the park, the kids alerted Fernando in time for him to get the cart out onto the sidewalk, headed up the street.

Fernando told the kids he didn’t want to see anybody fighting. Every day he gave them solemn talks about good behaviour, and they listened, sitting on a park bench around his ice cream cart. Gradually, as Elyse and her co-workers built up the arts activities, more people started coming to the park. Fernando sold more ice cream and the regular “park kids” – which is what they called themselves – had to watch his cart more often. They took the task of helping him out seriously. The knives disappeared.

Elyse and her friends carried out wonderful activities with children those first two summers – weaving, sewing on a treadle sewing machine, making felt, building shelters, beading, making toys and instruments. Margie, one of the four neighbours who launched the sandpit, found a circus teacher and got him to make five sets of lightweight aluminum stilts. He tried to teach the park kids juggling and tightrope walking as well, but they only wanted to walk on stilts, a skill they picked up almost instantly. Sometimes they walked over to the mall on the stilts, shaking people’s hands from up high.

Elyse’s husband Amnon Buchbinder, at that time an underemployed film-maker (he later came to head York University’s film department) filmed the park kids jousting on stilts, poking each other with long cardboard tubes that Elyse had brought to the sandpit. We found out more about their families. Some had both parents cleaning bank buildings seven nights a week to earn money for a house. Two had a connection with Children’s Aid, because of parents who were addicts. Three brothers had a mother who supported the family on her own by being a lady of the night. One girl had a father who drove a tow truck when he wasn’t in jail.

We began to love the spirit of these kids, who came every day, usually with a bit of money to get lunch at the mall, and a determination to squeeze as much interest and adventure out of each day as possible. Fernando the ice cream man loved them too. He started bringing his wife, Penny, and their two young sons. They showed the park kids how to help clean the freezer units of the cart, and other chores that would result in ice cream wages.

Anomaly Number Five: campfires.

Food-wise, for the park kids, dessert was taken care of by the ice cream. The problem remaining was lunch. Lunch was tricky. The park kids often didn’t eat. We thought it would be good to sometimes have lunch at the park, for those kids who didn’t bring any money to buy food at the food court across the street. Also, the to-do list of “what would you like to see in Dufferin Grove Park?” had called for food in the park. But a public health inspector who came to the community meeting when the list was discussed had us worried that getting food into the park would be complicated.

Recreation director Mario Zanetti came to the rescue, unwittingly. He had once told us about his two principles of how to make change in a bureaucracy: (1) start small and (2) use the rules against themselves. We decided to try this. We contacted Glen Sharp, the recreation manager in charge of Dufferin Grove, and asked if we could have a campfire. We wanted, we told him, to try doing one or two campfires for some show-and-tell heritage cooking with our Guatemalan street-food-seller friend, Isabel Perez. Heritage programs were important for newcomer kids, didn’t he agree? Isabel would show them how tortillas were cooked over an open fire. Glen said, there’s got to be a bylaw against campfires in city parks. But he checked anyway – and to his surprise, the Fire Chief said: draw us a map for where you want the fire, tell us how you plan to keep it safe and put it out, get permission from the parks staff, and then it’s fine with us. So we sent in the map and the description, and had the first campfire, and then the second, and when those worked out really well, we got permission for Isabel to do campfire cooking with kids twice a week. We bought potatoes and oil at the Mall, and Isabel helped the kids make French fries. We bought spaghetti and tomato sauce and heated those up over the fire as a regular lunch dish. More and more kids came. Amnon’s Big Back Yard video shows two dozen children washing their hands and rolling out donuts. The regular park kids got so good at helping the newer arrivals that we began to give them work, with honoraria of $5. They came with us to help out at special events at other nearby parks, bringing along our stilts, and the campfire pots, art materials, and a tipi with a felted cover. Mostly “our” kids coached other kids on stilts, or helped them roll out tortillas. Sometimes our kids started fights, and then we had to pack up and go home.

Anomaly Number Six: city councillors, laughing about us

One day I got an invitation to come to Metro Hall and talk to a few city management staff about what was going on in the Big Back Yard. But it turned out the chat wasn’t only for staff. There were some city councillors there too. It was late in the afternoon. There had been a difficult City Council meeting that day, but I didn’t know that. I only knew that when I told the story of how we had to invite the mayor so that we could get the sandpit built, the tired-looking people in the room started to laugh. I told about Fernando the ice cream man giving kids his park-bench lectures about good behaviour, and about Isabel cooking heritage tortillas over a campfire so that we could sneak in pasta and tomato sauce for the park lunches, and about the park kids not getting into fights so much if we asked them to sew up sandpit-tipi-covers on the treadle sewing machine. People kept on laughing. A few of the city councillors laughed so hard they had tears running down their faces. These tired people needed some comic relief as a remedy to their struggles at City Hall. The story of our counter-bureaucratic activities in an obscure downtown park was just the medicine they wanted.

The wish list: – more things for older children to do, not only for the under-six kids who loved the playground – a basketball court for the youth – more plantings, including native-species planting beds, to add interest to walks in the park – more benches and picnic tables for sitting down – outdoor arts performances, like Toronto parks used to have – food in the park. This last wish came particularly from immigrants, who missed the friendly socializing around food in the public spaces of their countries of origin.

Two weeks later one of the city staff from that meeting invited us to apply for a “Safe City” award, given by the Toronto Community Foundation. None of us had ever heard of applying for an award. We filled in the application and stuck in a few photographs, but we thought we were not likely to win that lottery. Wrong! In September of 1994, we got a phone call to say we were getting an award of $3000. Fernando and Isabel came to the ceremony at Metro Hall, and so did some of the park kids. The kids didn’t behave very well, bumping into people while running up the down escalator and swarming the food table. They argued a bit, but stopped short of fighting, too pleased about the prize money for the park to be really bad.

Anomaly Number seven: the Wish List

In the current City Hall climate of centrally-developed policies with the associated compliance monitoring by “program standards officers,” the original Dufferin Grove “wish list” is surely one of the stranger anomalies for the current management staff. The list was locally generated, simple, and cheap.

By the end of the second summer, our little group of neighbours and artists had made a start on many of those things. Our main preoccupation, of course, was the sandpit and the social life that grew up around it (with a little bit of food). The Mall donation had brought in the artists, who brought in a much higher standard of park activities than was there before. The artists brought in some friends who were performers – musicians and storytellers. (At that time there was no sense that the artists should pay a fee for performing, as they are now required to do.)

The basketball court had been put in. The Parks maintenance foreman arrived one day with a truckload of discarded wooden locker room benches, as a present for the park. We put some at the side of the basketball court, and the rest all around the park. Forestry brought logs for the campfire area, and between the logs and the benches, there were many more places to sit. Even so, it was clear that there was lots on the list that still needed to be done. The effort was daunting, and some of the early volunteer contributors left, to move on to other work.

Anomaly Number Eight: Henry Curtis helps out

A park friend brought in an old book that gave us a boost, a best-seller in 1929, by a once-famous American playground crusader called Henry Curtis. Curtis wrote:
P.62: “Adults need recreation and exercise as well as children, and so far as possible the playground ought to be a community melting pot. During a large part of the year such a common meeting ground is almost the only possible condition of a real community life, and of wholesome relationships between parents and children and [within] the community.”
P.64 “In many ways the German concert garden is the most delightful community playground in the world. There is excellent music, there is shade, and good refreshments are sold at reasonable rates. There is a delightful social atmosphere throughout it all, and at the edges are abundant playgrounds for the children…these new features might be furnished at a cheap rate….provided that it was done by the recreation department itself rather than through concessions.”
P.129: “The playground with its social centre is a sort of public settlement, and it is highly desirable that the director should live in the neighbourhood, if possible, and become a part of the community. In fact, it is almost impossible that the playground should be that sort of social force, that melting pot of the races, which it ought to be unless the director becomes a part of that community.”
P.133: “..the director…must know the games of the children, the folk dances, the athletics, and he should know, also, something of dramatics, story-telling, pageantry, camping, conducting excursions, gardening, and industrial work [crafts]…..”

We had no playground “director” with such a wonderful range of skills, but we could see that if the park’s playground staff could be persuaded to get involved in the broader range of activities we had begun, the workload of volunteers would become more manageable. A much closer connection with local park staff would increase the chances that the park kids, and maybe even their parents, would find a “social centre” at the park even if all of the volunteers got tired and left. The beginning of this connection with the Dufferin Grove staff is the subject of Chapter Four.

Post script: the Money Story

1. Youth workers: The Recreation section of PFR hired 19 new youth workers a few years back. Before that, all the recreation staff in parks and community centres were expected to work with all ages, including youth. The specialized youth workers earn a minimum of $76,000 a year. Some of them help youth get into the music business. The chance is vanishingly small that any of them would have been able to take the time to do what the ice cream man did for the difficult kids at Dufferin Grove, at the beginning of the Big Back Yard.

Councillor Ana Bailao says she wants to hear your opinion about the current Dufferin Grove changes. She wants to hear specifics: what parts of this “post script” page concern park users? E-mail her at or call her office at 416 392-7012.

It turned out that Fernando, the ice cream man, who helped us out for free, was in the country as an illegal immigrant. He and his family were deported back to Mexico in 1995.

2. Wading pool attendants: until this year, experienced, mature Dufferin Grove Staff integrated their park work with wading pool attendance during the busy times. Preference was given to local mothers returning to the work force. Their wages were sometimes as high as $15 an hour. This year, wading pool staff are single-purpose, and their wages are $10.25. Management has explained that hiring local people who know the park is not their policy. Consequently, the wading pool has often been staffed by teenagers sent over from other parts of the city.

3. Staff suspension: Dufferin Grove staff have been given a memo from management to remind them that they can’t talk to park users about any of the troubles at the park. Michael Monastyrskyj, who started out as a community volunteer watering the newly-planted trees in the 2007 drought (they all survived), has sent a letter to both management and to Councillor Bailao. He says that telling him he has to stop talking to the rest of his community feels like censorship and he can’t agree to it, even if it endangers his job. Will he be suspended?

Summer Story (2011) is published by the 'Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS),

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