Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 2)
Early 1990's initiatives, including the sandpit 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, July 14, 2011: Chapter Two.
Recap: 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.” In this chapter, I’ll begin the story of “the anomalies of Dufferin Grove Park,” and how they came about.
The public meeting.
In the fall of 1991, I found a flyer in my mailbox, from City Councillor Tony O’Donahue. It announced a meeting at St.Mary’s High School, about problems at Dufferin Grove Park. The police would be there, to hear from the neighbourhood and talk about solutions.
I didn’t know what problems the meeting poster referred to. I’d been going to the park every day for five years to walk our dog, and our three children played at the playground. My main problem with the park was that it was not very interesting for the kids. There was a fairly new wooden playground that offered some fun for younger children, and a wading pool in the summer, but not much for older kids to do. The park was mostly grass and a lot of fine old trees, and two small flower beds. The baseball diamond had a pretty friendly scene, but it was mostly adult leagues playing softball. The bocci court near the rink never seemed had anyone on it. And in winter, the compressor-cooled skating rink had the same little group of teenagers playing shinny and swearing at each other every night, on both of its rink pads. Boring, but not a problem that was likely to result in a meeting with police. It seemed like a lot of people in the neighbourhood used the park mainly as a shortcut over to the Dufferin Mall. But what were the problems alluded to in the poster?
So I went to the meeting to find out.
There were about sixty people in the school gym. In the course of the meeting they brought up a long list of grievances about the park, particularly about the southeast corner where the playground is. The people who lived in the houses adjoining that corner said that almost every night there were cars pulling into the laneway between their houses and the park, with prostitutes doing their business. There were noisy late-night drinking parties at a park picnic table. A few weeks ago when one of the neighbours went out to tell at the drinkers to leave, one of the women at the picnic table had thrown her underpants at him and they had landed on his head. Despite all this trouble, said the park neighbours, if they call the police, the police often say they’re too busy to come.
This was clearly very distressing for the people living beside the laneway. The list didn’t stop there. There were complaints about dog walkers not picking up after their dogs; about litter all over the park; about messy, smelly washrooms; about kids smoking marijuana or maybe even crack; and about the use of bad, rude, sometimes threatening language, directed toward anyone who complained to the people who were acting up.
Most of these behaviours were attributed to teenagers, and there were demands for the police to make arrests and teach the kids a lesson. But a police sergeant reminded the meeting that while they could arrest people for using or selling illegal drugs, or give them a ticket for drinking, they couldn’t really arrest anyone for swearing or throwing underwear.
Some of the people at the meeting were pretty incensed to hear that reminder. “How would you like to live next to a park where you get dirty underwear thrown at you?” “My wife called the police six times in one evening, and they finally came three hours later, when the drinkers had already left!” “These teenagers have no respect, the only way they’ll learn is if they spend some time in jail!” The tone of the complaints went up a few more levels, until there was a call for order. In the end, the police promised to come to the park more often. The meeting finished soon after.
I went home thinking that sending a lot of kids to jail is a bad idea, for dealing with antisocial behaviour in parks. There had to be a better remedy. But how could the different groups in a neighbourhood park come to acknowledge and respect and maybe even like each other? That was a puzzle.
Anomaly #1: The Dufferin Mall
The following year, in 1992, bus shelters in the neighbourhood displayed a new ad campaign for the Dufferin Mall. The ads said “Dufferin Mall: we are your community.” The mall’s new manager, David Hall, had announced his company’s interest in adding some condominiums on the mall’s property, and this put him in hot water with the people living near the mall. There were angry public meetings about poor planning, traffic congestion and crowding, which would be brought by more development. Maybe the ad campaign was supposed to reassure people that the mall was nice after all. I attended a few of the meetings, and then wrote a letter to Hall, objecting to the ad campaigns. “You are not the community, you are a shopping mall. Your ad campaign is a distortion.”
Hall called me up. He didn’t want to talk about the ads, but about a good-will donation of $25,000 he had offered to the city, for the playground in Dufferin Grove Park. The Parks Department had called a public meeting to find out how people thought such a donation ought to be spent. But the only people who came to the meeting were the parks staff and the mall staff – not a single resident showed up.
No doubt the hostility toward the mall plans was one reason why some people stayed away. The other reason was that City Parks staff at that time had very little connection with park users at Dufferin Grove, and therefore not much of an idea of how to contact them for a meeting, other than putting up some posters. David Hall said to me, “if you feel so strongly about what the real community is, where are they? Can you find out what they want to do with the playground?” He said that City staff had told him the funds would all go to buy a big plastic slide, since no one had shown up with any other suggestions. Surely more could be done with that money?
I called the City’s recreation director, Mario Zanetti, whom I knew from my work with the “indoor park” at Wallace-Emerson Community Centre. He encouraged me to ask around in the neighbourhood. The City had a rule at that time, that any donation would have to be discussed at a public meeting. But if no one came, Mario said, they’d go ahead and spend the funds on whatever was easiest. A single plastic tube slide would take pretty well all the funds, and Mario thought that would be a shame. If I was willing to contact more neighbours and ask them what they wanted, the City would have one more try at a public meeting.
Anomaly #2: The two-day neighbourhood phone survey
I thought about the angry public meeting of the year before, and how sending people to jail had been the main idea for improving the park. Would there be more fruitful ideas if park users had to think about how $25,000 could be spent to make things better? I was curious. For two days, I called everyone I knew who used the park, and at the end of each conversation, I asked the person to refer me to other neighbours who might be interested.
My question was: “what would you like to see in Dufferin Grove Park?”
At the end of the two days, and with a sore ear from holding that big 1992 telephone earpiece, I collated all the answers. The wish list was remarkably simple. People said they wanted more things for older children to do, not only for the under-six kids who loved the playground. And they wanted a basketball court for the youth, instead of the bocci court that no one used. They wanted more plantings, including native-species planting beds, to add interest to walks in the park. They wanted more benches and picnic tables for sitting down, particularly the seniors: “we can’t just sit down on the grass, it’s too hard to get up again.” They wanted outdoor arts performances, like Toronto parks used to have. And they wanted some food in the park. This last answer came particularly from immigrants, who told me anecdotes about the friendly socializing around food in the public spaces of their countries.
That wish list was the beginning, some simple ideas that seemed worth working for. Nobody had suggested more jail time for bad behavior in the park.
I sent the wish list off to the city staff. They sent flyers to every household and held another public meeting, at the library. This time about forty people came, to consider the ideas on the list. The main concern was the suggestion of adding a basketball court: partly because it would result in more paving in a green space, and partly because it could attract youth who would make trouble. But in the end, the people at the meeting approved the basketball court too. Some neighbourhood youth had come along with their parents, clearly determined to make sure that this one item would not fall victim to adult squeamishness. They argued that youth needed something in the park that they could love, and they were quite sure that they would love a basketball court. So the grownups said…well, okay. If it doesn’t work out, it could always be removed.
Anomaly #3: The sandpit
The wish-list meeting was in the middle of April. Four people said they would follow up – Robin Craig, who lived across the street from the park, Dawne MacFarlane from up the street, Margie Rutledge, from the Wallace-Emerson Indoor Park, and I. The idea was to get some of the things on that list into the park in time for summer.
The city staff asked us – when park users say they want more things for older children to do, what kinds of additions do they have in mind? We said – we’ve been told that a sandpit is really nice. A woman from the artist-run summer camp at Trinity-Bellwoods Park had described their sandpit to us. They put it in after they saw a sandpit at Spiral Garden, another artist-run camp, this one for disabled kids at the Hugh MacMillan kids’ rehab centre. A sandpit is just a really big sand play area, this woman said, maybe with some branches for building tipis, and some digging implements, and water nearby to keep the sand from drying out and getting dusty. The advantages of making this the first to-do item on the wish list were: a sandpit was big, and cheap, and fast to install, and very popular with kids up to their early teens. We would need a City backhoe driver to dig out a hollow about 15 inches deep, and fill it with gravel for drainage, then four truckloads of sand piled overtop, then logs to surround it, and some branches and shovels for the kids to start working. There was ample space for this sand play area, right beside the wading pool.
Simple! But then the plan began to run into trouble. First, some of the neighbours whose houses backed on to the southeast part of the park were unhappy that there would be any expansion of the playground, with more noise. After the Recreation director, Mario Zanetti, himself came to the park to ask them to give the sandpit a chance, the objectors withdrew, and it seemed that the project would go ahead. But May came and went, and the weeks ticked by into June, and still no backhoe arrived to start making the sandpit. Summer was almost here and there were no gardens, either, and no music, and no food, no more benches, and no basketball court – and no plans for any. Phone calls were not returned. The four of us learned something important. In a big city, the government might say yes, yes, yes to local ideas, but nothing might ever actually happen.
In the middle of June we realized we had to make a move to jump the gap between the park and the government. We had an inspiration. We decided to write a letter to the Mayor, June Rowlands, inviting her and the Dufferin Mall manager, David Hall, to the official opening of the new sandpit play area, now christened “The Big Back Yard.” We hoped that the connection between the Mall and the City would attract enough interest that somebody in the Mayor’s office would take notice of our request. The date we gave was July 5 – three weeks away.
It worked. The Mayor’s office said, yes, she would love to attend. She was fond of playgrounds, and also fond of corporate donations. We called the City Parks staff and told them that we hoped there would be something in place for the mayor to see when she came. And so the sandpit project moved right up to the front of the line.
Three weeks later, the sandpit was all ready. Elyse Pomeranz , a neighbourhood artist, had agreed to lead some art programs beside the sand pit. The mall said that $5000 of its donation could be spent on honoraria for people to work with kids in the park. Elyse found four other artists to help, each one with a different skill. The Parks Department said they couldn’t spare a storage shed for the art supplies, so the mall threw in another $1100 and we got a carpenter to build a park-style storage shed. Elyse painted it orange with an African pattern, and the park staff got us a city padlock for it. Two days before the Mayor was due to come, we opened the storage shed padlock to find ten flats of bedding plants in the shed – a surprise gift from the Parks Horticulture crew. The City backhoe operator, after he was done with the sandpit excavation, had already dug us a small children’s garden (his idea), around the corner from the sandpit. So on July 5, the new play area was resplendent with its African shed, its hilled-up sandpit surrounded by giant tree trunks. The children’s garden was planted with flowers. Just before the mayor arrived, one of those remote TV vehicles came and screwed its antenna as high as the trees. The Guatemalan cook from the indoor park, Isabel Perez, had made little tortillas with bean spread. The park kids, a pretty rough bunch normally, turned into the house-proud sandpit “staff,” politely offering the tortilla snacks to the Mall staff and the City staff and the politicians and the cameramen.
That was the formal beginning of the Dufferin Grove anomalies.
Post Script: the Money Story
How the original $25,000 donation from the Dufferin Mall was spent:
Materials and City staff time to make the sandpit: $3000
Honoraria for five artists to work with children from mid-June to September: $5000
Replacing the bocci court with a concrete basketball court: $17,000
Plus an extra donation of $1100 from the mall to build a storage shed (still in use, now as a wading pool shed).
The city paid for the orange paint for the shed. Since the mall donation went into general revenues, the actual cost for the basketball court and the sandpit was never completely clear. No doubt the City topped up the donation, once the gap between ideas and action was bridged. And in the time between 1992 and 2011, the city has had to bring new sand to the sandpit almost every year, to replace what went home in the shoes of hundreds of children. The big tree trunks bio-degraded after fifteen years and Forestry staff brought replacements. The shovels were originally supplied in-house by the City (they kept shovels in stock for their maintenance and horticulture crews). At amalgamation the City reduced its in-house supplies, so the City playground staff bought replacement shovels with snack bar money. (That’s how different elements of the park fit together.) That money also paid for the Lee Valley tap that supplied water to the sandpit. Last year the City installed a fixed water tap, for about $3000. So maintaining a sandpit is not free. But if you cost it out per use by the little engineers who keep busy in the sandpit for hours, the cost is just pennies a day.
In the next chapter I’ll continue with the anomalies of Dufferin Grove Park.
Councillor Ana Bailao says she wants to hear your opinion about the current Dufferin Grove changes. She wants to hear specifics: what parts of the “anomalies” do park users not want to lose? E-mail her at email@example.com or call her office at 416 392-7012.
Summer Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), celos.ca.