Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 8)
Youth issues 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, August 25, 2011 , Chapter Eight
By Jutta Mason
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. One of her tasks this summer has been to dissect 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 up until it ran into PFR’s “functional restructuring,” then – as the “anomalies” fade away – future park users will still 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.
City management has already gone far in fixing the Dufferin Grove anomalies. Since the last chapter was printed, the City’s recreation supervisor, Wendy Jang, has downgraded most Dufferin Grove work to minimum wage (to be applied to any new/replacement staff). That means most staff will be earning one-third of what park litter-pickers earn (instead of half, as many do now), no matter how much work they do. Wendy has rewritten the job descriptions without any discussion with CELOS (although the City lists CELOS as a “partner” in six different categories), because – writes Wendy – "When it comes to staffing matters, it is inappropriate to involve external parties."
But of course, an internal/external divide is the opposite of what Dufferin Grove Park is built on. And the additional separation of wading pool tasks from clubhouse cleaning tasks from pizza oven tasks into internal “silos” makes the transformation even more damaging. So it seems even more timely to record the story of how a place like Dufferin Grove evolved into a “community centre without walls,” – for the record. In this chapter, I’ll describe the troubles with youthful behavior that first brought park friends together with city staff, and taught us all how to work with “at-risk” youth – and to become very fond of some of them.
The previous Chapter started a kind of dictionary of the particular way PFR uses certain words to alter the park. My word list only got to “F,” but I want to return to the park story rather than take another whole chapter (or two) to get to the end of the dictionary. So from now on, every chapter will have just one page of word definitions, and one page of financial details. The rest will resume the serial story of the park – and after this week, the series will be called “Fall Story.”
In Chapter Two I told about the fractious public meeting, back in 1991, at which park neighbours demanded help from police to deal with some of the nasty behaviours at the park. Many of the complaints were about litter and dog poo and mouthy teenagers. But there were also reports of late night drinking, fights, crack use, and visits by prostitutes, especially in the southeast corner of the park by the playground. So when an unexpected donation of $20,000 came to the park from Dufferin Mall’s manager, it seemed like a good chance to draw the neighbourhood into thinking about park improvements.
A telephone survey and a public meeting turned up a little list of ideas that might attract more people into the park, to regain some turf from the drinkers and the fighters. Out of that list grew the adventure playground/ sandpit, children’s programs run by artists, food cooked over campfires, a community bake-oven, and the gradual, low-cost conversion of the three-months-a-year rink change house into a year-round clubhouse for the park, with the help of community labour.
These changes got practical support from Recreation director Mario Zanetti. When it became apparent that the teenagers hired to run the rink in the wintertime were unenthusiastic – to the point of sabotage – about making the rink more family-friendly, Mario agreed to move Dufferin Grove under the supervision of Tino DeCastro. That helped. But because Tino began to work with the early park friends to address youth behavior problems directly, there were some painful confrontations before things got better.
One of the first things Tino did was agree to hire some female rink staff, to balance the mostly-male culture that might be discouraging more girls from coming. He asked park friends if they had any recommendations, and we did. The first female rink guard, Meran Currie-Roberts, was a friendly, capable music student at the University of Toronto, already involved in the park’s summer programs. She was enthusiastic about the rink, and eager to help little kids learn to skate.
Meran was a fast learner on her new job, but on her third day of work at the rink she came across a situation she hadn’t expected to run into, and she called me at home. She told me that three boys who were probably no older than 12 or 13 had asked her to help them count some money. Meran counted $900 in $20 bills. She asked them where they got the money. One of the boys, who evidently had trouble with strategy as well as arithmetic, told her they got the money from a neighbourhood “chop shop” (auto parts dealer) for delivering a stolen car. Meran said her eyes must have widened. But before she could say anything, the boys looked at each other, quickly got up, and left the building. When she looked outside, there was no one to be seen. Meran called me because she had been told at the start of her rink guard job that the scene at the rink was sometimes “heavy.” She wanted a candid answer from me: would she be likely to encounter other kids who would be needing help counting large amounts of money?
But no one else ever made that request. Most problem behaviors were more garden-variety. Kids threw checker pieces into the woodstove to fill the room with the smell of burning plastic. Older kids stole lunch money, or baseball caps, from the younger ones. (Everyone called it “punking off,” not stealing.) There was smoking in the washrooms and on the ice – and not only of cigarettes.
To get younger kids and families back into the rink, we resolved to have the rink guards enforce the shinny hockey schedule. Older kids would have to get off the ice and let the younger kids play unobstructed for an hour every day. There was strong resistance. Everybody had an opinion. The ice-resurfacing staff came out on the side of the older kids. If the guys have to break up a really good shinny hockey game just because it’s the younger kids’ time, where’s the fairness in that? And so, when the rink guards weren’t looking, the ice-resurfacing staff waved the older guys back onto the ice, with a wink.
The resistance heated up. Tino got flyers printed up for skaters to take home. Schedules were put up all over the rink, showing the shinny hockey ice allocation times. The rink guards passed out the flyers, and were met with disgusted looks from the older youth. Meran, being the first female staff person, became a particular symbol for the new approach at the rink. One evening she found a tow truck parked outside the rink house’s front doors. It was parked so close that it was hard to get in and out of the doors. The guys who had arrived in the truck argued with Meran about their right to park the truck anywhere they wanted. As they were talking, they “accidentally” hit Meran in the foot with a puck. Tino came down to the rink from home, and talked to the guys (whom he had known since they were little kids at the community centre) and told them to leave. But they waited at the corner until Meran’s shift had ended, and she had to call me to walk her home.
Tino brought in two more female staff, both long-time recreation workers who knew many of the youth. After they started working at the rink, skaters were sometimes startled, when they came in the rink house doors, to find themselves in the crossfire of a fierce shouting match between Aileen, the Portuguese no-nonsense rink guard, and some of the shinny hockey players who were refusing to follow the schedule (or to clean up their language, or to leave the rink when told to go home). Being told to “go home!” if you ignored the schedule or swore at the rink guard was something new. The youth protested that such a thing had never happened when “the rink was theirs.” They were determined to take the rink control back, and would often delay following a staff order to “leave the premises” until they could actually see the staff dialing the police number.
Or they would wait even longer, since the police often didn’t show up for a call as minor, to the dispatcher, as “rink users refusing to listen to city staff.” The youth taunted the rink staff, saying that the police were on their side.
I spent many evenings at the rink, talking up the reasons for giving the younger kids a chance to play without having the older kids grab the puck away or run them down. Most skaters agreed. The young guys who resisted were not a majority of the skaters, but there were enough of them that the others gave them a wide berth. Nobody wanted to get punched for defending the staff.
So Tino called the recreation director, Mario Zanetti, and asked for permission to sign a short-term contract with Intelligarde, a private security company. Mario said yes.
That brought results. The next two times when the youth told the rink staff to go to hell, for enforcing the rink schedule, Intelligarde staff arrived within fifteen minutes (their promise) and ushered the resisters out. The third time, near the end of the rink season, the youth brought some of their friends to bolster their numbers. Two Intelligarde staff came in with a mean-looking dog. The youth left, quite quickly. The rink closed the next day and we were glad to see the end of the kids.
But the first day of the next rink season, we got a surprise. Kids had been pounding on the door for days, asking when the rink would be open. Then on opening day there was a pretty big crowd, with their sticks and skates, ready to get out onto the ice. The staff started right off distributing their rink schedules, as they welcomed back familiar people. Nobody made a face. People admired the café counter, with hot chocolate in a pot on the stove and fresh mini-pizzas just coming out of the oven.
In among all the smiling faces, there were some of the mouthy kids from the season before. Their smiles were as broad as the others. I asked them, “why are you here? You said you didn’t like this rink with all its rules and its schedules. Why don’t you go up the street to the rinks where they have no schedules and the rink guards don’t bother you?”
They said, “those rinks are dangerous. We like this one a lot better.” I said, “those rinks are dangerous because of people like you, acting bad all the time.” They grinned, taking “bad” as a compliment, but shaking their heads. “We’re different now. We’ve matured” – using the word the teachers repeated all the time at school – “ and our rink is the best.” The staff got the same story I heard. We agreed that if this was part of a movie script, it would be cut for sounding implausible.
Two of the worst trouble-makers from the year before were in jail, for unrelated reasons. With the new friendship of the converts, and the temporary disappearance of the meanest guys into the courts, Intelligarde didn’t need to come anymore. Partway through the rink season, we had a rink party, with Christmas lights strung up on the rink fence outside, good food from the bake oven, and a string quartet playing classical music in the corner of the clubhouse. Two of the performers in the string quartet were also rink guards. Meran’s classmate Ariel, a viola player at the school of music, had applied to work at the park after Meran told her what a nice place it was, despite all the trouble.
After the first two summers, when we had to ask Fernando the ice cream man to help us with the kids who fought with knives (related in Chapter Three), the playground scene had got a lot more peaceful. Following up on the suggestions made in the phone survey and the public meeting, there were wonderful activities for kids in the adventure playground/sandpit. The gardens increased, and the pizza days slowly got going at the oven, with small live music concerts on Sundays. At first, not many people knew about these park improvements, and so attendance was sometimes sparse. As word got around, though, there came to be a steady increase in visitors to the park – including several little gangs of children who were just as rough as the first bunch of “park kids.”
These kids sampled all the different attractions of the park, putting their own spin on how to play there. They pulled out wooden fence slats and fed them into the pizza oven when no one was looking. They bullied little kids in the sandpit, and taunted the parents who tried to stop them. One afternoon some eight-year-olds swarmed over the colourful circus mural on the playground fence, marking it up with astonishingly explicit sexual graffiti. They stole a staff wallet out of the crafts storage shed, and before we knew it was missing, they passed the money around openly to their friends. Their tricks easily outmatched a couple of park staff, who were often busy elsewhere.
Then one day, a little group of them came to the waterslide the park staff had set up, with long sheets of plastic and a hose, on the hill near Dufferin Street. There were three boys and a girl in this group, none over ten years old. They enacted a mock gang rape for the astonished and horrified kids at the waterslide, with the willing participation of the girl. It only took about five minutes until the staff chased them away, the girl and the boys laughing and jeering. The police were called, but no one could catch the kids.
We applied for funds to pay for some extra park staff. The city had a grant program they called “Breaking the Cycle of Violence.” We wrote on our application: “If there is theft or vandalism or threatening behaviour at the park, we’ll find out who the people are and require them to fix the problem they caused as well as making restitution through doing community hours. As we get to know more of the youth, we have a greater chance of following up on antisocial incidents that occur here. We want the park to be safe. But it’s also necessary to create some attractive alternatives for these children and the youth, who are sometimes in so much trouble and yet have the potential to do better. The fact that they choose to be here (the more welcoming the park gets, the more they come) challenges us to address them directly, not just to push them out of the park when they get in trouble.
How the project works:
- consistency: we try to have the same staff, summer and winter, so they can build longer-term relationships with the children and the youth
- respect and affection: we try to find the little cracks in the tough kids, where we can learn to like them and show them we like them'' - nerve (moral energy): we try not to be spooked by what we see here
Brave words! We got $6000, and the staff and park friends together set up a “leadership course” for these kids. The bait was a promise of paid odd jobs, when the course was completed. Staff and park friends together supervised the odd jobs – and odd job were the best that most of these kids could manage. An hour was already long for their attention span. For us who were assigning and supervising the odd jobs, many of those hours were interminable.
Some are in prison now that they’re older, and some have just disappeared. We hope – but don’t really know – that some are all right. It took another ten years before we – staff and park friends together – acquired the confidence in one another to neutralize this kind of trouble before it became rampant. But before I go on with that part of the story, I need to go back and begin with another thread: the relation between park friends and the Canadian Union of Municipal Employees, CUPE Locals 416 and 79. That will be Chapter Nine, the first chapter of the Fall Story.
The dictionary page
A new vocabulary has grown up within the City bureaucracy to accompany the “functional model” used for the most recent restructuring of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). There are (1) new ways of using common words like “action,” (2) there are words which have one meaning in the community letters to Councillor Bailao but a very different meaning when used by PFR management, like “food,” and (3) there are other words, like “compliance” and “authorization” which are almost never used in ordinary talk. But they can act as sticks to whack people with. There are so many of these words that although I used up the whole of Chapter Seven for the dictionary, I only got to the beginning of the “F” words. So I’ll spread out the rest into one dictionary page for every chapter. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get through the alphabet.
Before I resume with the letter “F,” here is a “C” word that I missed in the last list:
Certification: although this word sounds like a legal term, at PFR it can be applied to any new course made up by compliance staff or bought from a consultant. So getting “certification” as a wading pool attendant includes learning that wearing flip-flops will protect your feel from pebbles and sunscreen will prevent you from getting sunburned. Both may be good advice for people who don’t get out much, but neither ought to be converted into a legal canon without which you can’t work for the city. Legalistic words like “certification” slip into the numbingly long list of compliance requirements which trump both experience and ability. A parent who has worked at the Dufferin Grove wading pool for ten years, and helped shape it into a place where neighbourhood friendships bloom, will not be allowed to work there again if s/he has missed getting their every-two-years “re-cert” – four hours of redundant material that could have been covered in ten minutes. And even if the “re-cert” is in place, this summer the same experienced parent cannot make swim diapers available to a parent who forgot to bring one for their toddler. That might involve a donation of $1 from the parent, and wading pool staff have not been trained and certified to handle cash.
Fraud: what PFR management have told Dufferin Grove staff they may be guilty of, for having worked with CELOS to expand park programs. Example: if it takes an extra two hours of work to clean up after Friday Night Supper, and there’s no city budget allocation to pay for those extra hours, staff are paid from the supper donation money. Management says that can count as fraud, and the auditor can get involved. It doesn’t matter if the staff takes off her/his park staff hat and puts on her/his “CELOS contract” hat; nor that all these transactions are published and all contract income is reported to Canada Revenue; nor that this is the obvious way to make Friday Night Supper work; nor that the park supervisor has insisted staff must stay within their pre-approved city hours: adding two hours of donation funds to get the dishes done can still count as fraud, at PFR.
The Money Story
CELOS administers the donated funds that go back into programs at Dufferin Grove Park.
Background: a group of people loosely calling themselves “friends of Dufferin Grove Park” got together in 1993 to get some improvements for the park. Here is the original description of the group, from the first “annual report” in 1995:
There are five people who were busy in or about the park quite a lot this past year, one of whom was extremely busy there; there are about twenty people (eight of them children) who did a lot in the park at particular periods last year: then there are upwards of sixty who contributed their gifts in various ways on one or two occasions, often spontaneously rather than at any scheduled times.
Some Parks and Recreation employees contributed more to the park than their jobs required; insofar as they are also friends of the park, the line between paid and unpaid “friends” gets blurry.
Since food was an important element of the park improvements from the beginning, and since donations to cover the cost were accepted, the “friends” had to have a bank account. Once we started applying for grants, we had to get an umbrella group to back us, since we were not incorporated. The Catholic Children’s Aid was our first backer, when they had an office at Dufferin Mall. They said that we were a logical fit for them, since family-friendly parks reduce their workload.
The work of the “friends” wasn’t completely focused on Dufferin Grove, spreading out to other public spaces as well. Some contracts went to part-time recreation staff, in addition to their work for the City. So when it was time to incorporate, we made up the name “CELOS,” based on the work of Ivan Illich, an important teacher for some of us.
CELOS = The CEntre for LOcal Research into Public Space.
In 2009, we got charitable status, so that we could accept donations from foundations directly, and give tax receipts to our individual donours. Our mandate is to do both theoretical and practical research – trying things, to see what works in public spaces. When it became clear that food in parks can work very well, we went to PFR management and said – we’ve found out how food can enliven a park and bring in donations. Can the City take this over, incorporating our approach? There followed about three months of meetings with two City Recreation managers, Kelvin Seow and Costanza Allevato. We asked for an internal auditor to join the meetings, to explore how city rules could be made to fit with our food research. But the City position was and (remains) “if we take this over, it’s our way or nothing.” In Chapter Ten, I’ll get into much more detail about park food and money. The question is: if Dufferin Grove Park, a “community centre without walls,” is a cheaper gathering place for a neighbourhood than a standard, $20 million community centre, can we help City Council connect the dots for their budget deliberations?