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< Chapter Three | Stories List | Chapter Five >

Summer Story

The making and unmaking of Dufferin Grove Park.

A summer serial, July 28, 2011, Chapter Four

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. At the top of the list was having 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 at that time. Chapter Three took up the anomaly story from there. Anomaly Number Four was Fernando the ice cream man, helping the park kids who were in trouble. Anomaly Number Five was the introduction of campfires in the park. These brought in food – one of the important items on the neighbourhood park list. Anomaly Number Six was the little bunch of city councillors who found our counter-bureaucratic activities, in an obscure downtown park, a source of comic relief for their days of frustration – and their laughter led to a “Safe City” award for the anomalies at Dufferin Grove. Anomaly Number Seven was the volunteers’ dogged follow-up of the neighbourhood wish-list for the park. Follow-up to simple, locally-generated aims is a very unusual anomaly in city government. Most people get worn down by the effort of working for free, when the problems and the barriers are numerous. But at Dufferin Grove, some volunteers stuck around after the first push, and poured their energies into finding more cracks in government walls.

Anomaly Number Eight, the final one of Chapter Three, was the ideas we got from the early-twentieth century “playground movement” which had laid the basis of the early park playgrounds in North America, including Toronto. In a 1920 bestseller by playground advocate Henry Curtis, called Practical Conduct of Play, Curtis wrote about the role of park playgrounds in pulling communities of strangers together, in cities made up of so many newcomers and migrants from rural areas. “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.”

Curtis gave a European example of a meeting ground that works : “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.”

Parks with food and drink and music and games and playgrounds all combined – where adults could revive their spirits in the company of their children – seemed to us like a very good idea. Another book came our way, by Ray Oldenburg, called The Great Good Place, which described the many German-American “beer gardens” that grew up in Wisconsin in the 19th century. “A low and permissive cost for the public consumption of food, drink and music (primarily) was essential to community and the establishment of solid relations with neighbours. Orderly behaviour and minimal expense were crucial to the ultimate inclusiveness and accommodation of the beer garden. Everyone had to be allowed to participate lest those places fail in their purpose. The large beer gardens were there for the children, women, and non-Germans also, and social class was largely forgotten.” And again: “It was a garden in a double sense – in addition to the greenery, human relationships and goodwill were cultivated.”

In the context of today’s municipal parks – supposedly run on a “business model” by our tax-funded civil servants, for citizens who are now called “customers” – having an “everyone welcome” community gathering place is a pretty major anomaly. We figured that such a place – different from other kinds of places designated for education, worship, or commerce – would incorporate much of our “park list.”

Anomaly Number Nine: Dufferin Rink
We thought, in 1993, that Dufferin Grove Park could become more of an anomalous kind of neighbourhood “meeting ground,” and not only in summer. The outdoor compressor-cooled skating rink seemed like an ideal spot to engage with neighbours in the winter too. But at that time, the rink was not a very nice place.

Dufferin Rink was rebuilt from scratch in 1993. That was the also the first summer of the Big Backyard, and as the construction crews worked on the rink, I sometimes asked the kids if they were looking forward to skating there in winter. Quite a few of the summer kids said that they wouldn’t go there, that the rink is a scary place. I asked them what was the most scary thing about it, and the kids said “the rink staff.” That puzzled me. When it came time to re-open the new rink, I decided to find out for myself. That winter I spent quite a few hours every week just sitting on a bench in the entryway (I don’t skate), chatting with people who came to skate, and with the rink staff. People quickly got used to me and paid little attention.

It was a world of mostly male teenagers, rink guard staff included, and there was lots of rough language and bullying. The staff office had a big sealed internal window, through which you could see a beaten-up old metal desk, a few old office chairs and a couple of wooden storage boxes for rink guard vests and cleaning supplies. That office was a little clubhouse for the rink guards and their friends.

Much of the time the rink guards were either sitting in the office, along with the ice resurfacer drivers, or out on the ice playing shinny hockey. When girls came to skate, there were sometimes raids between change rooms (girls and boys had separate, walled-off skate-changing areas, even though no one actually changed more than their footwear). Shoes were taken as trophies. It must have been fun for the kids who liked the screaming and the play-fighting involved, but for people coming in the front door, the impression could be pretty wild. Meanwhile, out on the ice, older teenagers dominated, and fights were not infrequent. Families seemed to avoid the place. Even though the rink building was new, the fact that there were no eye-level windows gave the place a “prison-architecture” look.

I talked to the rink users and the staff, and to the people in the neighbourhood who had used the Big Back Yard in the summer, about maybe having an official rink re-opening party, with food and music. Nobody objected. So I went around to some of the local ethnic food take-out places along Bloor Street – maybe they’d like to offer people a taste of their food at the rink party, to increase their customers?

Asking strangers to cook for the rink party took a bit more nerve than I could comfortably muster. But the owners of the little convenience stores who also made samosas or vine leaf rolls didn’t seem surprised. A community party back home – a block-o, a goat roast, a plov – would always be centered around food, why not a rink rebuilding party at the park?

Seven vendors agreed to come, and musicians from the summer Big Back Yard program said they were happy to play some music. The tricky part was gaining the cooperation of the rink staff. They said they’d help, but as the date approached, they didn’t show up for either of two planning meetings. A large, colourful poster inviting rink user participation turned up in the garbage bin the day after we put it up. One of the ice resurfacer drivers told me that the rink guards had thrown it out. I uncrumpled it and taped it back on the wall. Some of the rink guards complained about the party, not addressing me to my face but in loud voices meant to be overheard. Having strange kinds of food and music and stilt walkers and other sissy stuff at their rink – stupid!!

We had to postpone the rink party twice. Finally, three of us went to talk to the rink supervisor, and when that didn’t work, we went up a level, to the district manager. We settled on the last possible date: the day before the rink was set to close for the season. The posters went up in the neighbourhood, and the Parks Commissioner was invited to come out and cut the ribbon.

On the morning of the party, the rink staff locked the front doors and put up a sign: rink closed to the public, for official opening ceremony. We called the supervisor. He said, “oh, we thought that’s what you wanted, keep people off so the ice will be nice and smooth!” But we took down the “closed” sign and the staff unlocked the doors and let people skate. Tables were set up in the garage for the food vendors. The rink staff, finally with a good grace, built a campfire outside and surrounded it with bales of straw for the skaters to sit. The musicians played in the entry hall. Skaters came, far more than I’d expected, whole families, who hadn’t used the rink all season. The Big Back Yard circus teacher stood outside the front door on stilts, eating fire. A local figure skating prodigy, ten years old, gave a short performance, with music playing on a borrowed city sound system. She took only one fall in a series of pretty good jumps. The food tables were surrounded by eager eaters, and the vendors looked gratified as the compliments flowed.

For me, the best moment came near the end. A group of the kids who normally yelled and cursed and fought with each other were talking by the rink. Their faces looked friendlier and more relaxed than I’d seen them all season. One of them said: “our rink is the best, everybody wants to come here” and the others nodded. That’s when I first learned that a world run not only by teenagers was more fun for them too.

 *		*		*		*		*

But things didn’t stay mellow. The following season, the shoe raids were back, and so was the fighting, the bullying, and the rink guards hanging around inside their sealed office. Their supervisor didn’t seem to mind. The ice was sometimes pretty bumpy, depending on which rink operator was operating the ice resurfacer. The rule was (the rink operators told me) that the ice only had to be scraped and flooded twice a shift (requiring one to two hours of work in an eight-hour shift). The rest of the time they sat and chatted with the rink guards, or read the racing pages of their paper.

I asked Mario Zanetti, the Recreation director, how such low work standards could continue. He said that since most certified ice resurfacing staff were seasonal labourers, the City had to take who it could get. And indeed, when I looked for old rink stories at the city archives, I came across this letter from Parks Commissioner George Bell to the Department of Labour in 1963: “During the four month period of operation the Department had a turn-over of approximately 81 men to operate thirteen rinks. 29 of these left before the completion of the season, 11 of whom were discharged for various misdemeanors..…In general the certificated men who are hired for seasonal employment…are poorly qualified for the operation of refrigeration equipment and irresponsible. Their misbehaviour and unreliability disrupts shifts and this Department must go to considerable expense to cover these shifts with other men at overtime rates.”

Despite this sad situation, back in those times the rinks seem to have been very well used. On Sunday December 11, 1955, 800 people came to skate at Dufferin Rink. On January 3 1958, the Toronto Star ran an editorial called, If Sardines Skated They’d Choose Toronto: “Skating is not much fun when people have to wait in line outside for half an hour or more, and then go on an intolerably crowded ice surface…”

But by the winter of 1993, when Dufferin Rink re-opened after being completely rebuilt for $1.3 million, attendance was down to a handful of pleasure-skaters on a normal Friday night, and around twenty shinny players – three of them rink guards. And the mood was often mean. It was the same when I came back the following season. What was to be done?

We asked the supervisor if we could try some rink-side campfires, and he said he didn’t care, but that it probably wouldn’t work. On the first Sunday in January a few of the summer park kids helped to set up some benches beside the rink gates, laid out some rubber mats, and we made a cooking fire. We cooked chicken soup, French fries, and apple fritters. It was cold, standing out there for four hours, but the fire was beautiful, and we repeated the campfires on the following “family Sundays.” Gradually families started coming back to the rink on Sundays. People talked around the fire even if they didn’t know each other.

The rink guards ignored us, so with our “Safe City” prize money we hired a couple of L.A. gang members whom we knew from Christie Pits, to help tend the fire when the park kids got tired of it. The “L.A.’s” were good workers, chopping wood with relish, stirring the pan, and making sure nobody fell in the fire. But if they were hung over, or unexpectedly spending the night in jail, I was on my own, with only grudging help from the rink staff to even help set up the benches. One Sunday in February I found the fire extinguisher missing from the campfire shed, and in its place a nasty note from a visiting city inspector, saying that we’d better keep our hands off city equipment. The rink supervisor seemed a bit embarrassed, and he bought us another extinguisher at the mall. But the next Sunday was one of the hung-over days for the L.A. support staff, and nobody showed up to help. I asked two of the rink staff to just bring over a bench and a bucket of water for me. They grinned and said, no, that’s not our job.

That was the end for me. I packed up the jug of oil and the potatoes and the pot and the paper towels and the utensils and the oven mitts and told the families on the rink that there would be no more cooking fires that season. The next morning, I called the recreation director and told him I couldn’t stand it any more. The teenage staff were deadbeats and their supervisor didn’t care – could the director move the rink into a different supervisor’s jurisdiction?

The recreation director said – all right. He assigned Tino DeCastro, stationed at Christie Pits, to supervise Dufferin Rink next season, using different rink guards.

When they found out, the outgoing rink guards asked me: how could you do this to us? That rink has always been ours. I said, it’s not yours. It belongs to the neighbourhood. How could you think there would be no consequences to how you ran things into the ground?

Because that’s what can happen in a world run by kids. We resolved to work toward re-establishing a mix of generations among front-line park staff, and for the first ten years, we got support for that project, from the supervisor right up to the City Recreation Director.

Post script: the Money Story

1. Comparing the Parks, Forestry and Recreation budget, then and now: there were plenty of rink staff in 1993, even if they didn’t do much. But the cost of running the rinks, and the whole department, was much lower than it is now. In 1993, the year the rink was rebuilt, the entire operating budget of Parks and Recreation for the pre-amalgamation City of Toronto (which had many more facilities than the other three city sections and did not charge for programs) was $59.1 million. That’s the highest it ever went – in the four remaining pre-amalgamation years, under Commissioner Herb Pirk, the Parks and Recreation total operating budget went down as low as $52.1 million (in 1996). For comparison: in 2011, the PFR operating budget for the four city sections is $376 million. In the last four years, operating costs have risen by $51 million.

2. The need for details: The cost of operating individual facilities, like Dufferin Rink, is hard to tease out, both in 1993 and now. But that’s what we have to do. To find the best way to cut costs, we need the details. CELOS has applied to the City Manager and to Freedom of Information to find out the PFR financial details that were given to KPMG. (KPMG is the consulting company that is advising the city manager on cutting the budget.)

Next week, Chapter Five will tell the story of the best-known anomaly of Dufferin Grove – how the bake ovens were built. But that’s not the end of the Summer Story, or even the best part.

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'

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

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