What doesn’t work as well as it used to: campfires
The campfires at Dufferin Grove started up slowly, about twenty-one years ago. They were neighbourhood gatherings, sometimes organized by park staff but more just by small groups of park friends who wanted to get together for a birthday, a graduation, a going-away or coming-home celebration, or just to enjoy each other’s company, outdoors under the open sky. The result was a friendlier, safer park in the evenings.
As people noticed the campfires, walking through the park, word got out. People from other parts of the city started calling to book a campfire date. For a while it looked like campfires would become established in other neighbourhoods, allowing people to gather in the same way in their own local parks. But there were many blocks and objections, and it seems as if people found it easier to just use what works already, instead of pushing against the obstacles in their own area. In the last five years or so, the campfires in this park have become so numerous that just booking them and monitoring them takes up lots of staff time. Last year there were over 500 campfires. People email the staff “dear sir or madam,” asking to reserve a “camping spot for a bonfire” or a BBQ. A half-hour orientation session is required, but people coming to the sessions are often distracted, trying to fit another meeting into a busy schedule. So the campfire rules are sometimes forgotten, and the fires begin without the required pails of water, and the shovel and bucket of sand. Sometimes they get noisy and there’s occasional open beer drinking (alcohol in parks is illegal). There are even arguments with the park staff from time to time, by people insisting that they don’t need to book a spot, they can just take it, it’s their right as Torontonians to do what they want in public space, why are staff being so pushy, why can’t they give “better customer service.”
That’s a long way from the friendly local campfires nearer the beginning, when passersby could enjoy the glow of the fire and wave to their marshmallow-roasting neighbours. And worse, people from the neighbourhood, from local schools, from local daycares or scout groups, find that if they don’t book months ahead, they can’t get a campfire spot because all the times are booked already.
There are still plenty of good campfires, they still do put “eyes on the park” on dark evenings, many of them still feel local and friendly. But this program is suffering a bit from its own success. If many other parks opened up in the same way, with staff support and minimal fees, the problem would go away. What are the chances?
In 2014, there were 543 campfires at Dufferin Grove Park, up from 476 in 2013. People like to have campfires to celebrate – birthday parties, graduations, the visit of an old friend from far away. At other times, they gather around a campfire to memorialize the passing of a grandparent, or sometimes, a son or daughter or a friend. Most of the time, campfires are simply a way to get friends and family together to enjoy one another’s company. During rink season, the staff puts out rubber mats from the ice to the rink-side campfire. Year-round, the sight of the campfires gives pleasure to passersby, and the “eyes on the park” by campfire participants help the park be safer in the evenings. For more information on how to book such a campfire, go to dufferinpark.ca or email park program staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was walking along Montreal’s salt-stained Avenue Laurier when I spotted it. Fire! Yes, deep inside the wooded Parc Lahaie, cheery against the dim of a fading winter afternoon, there were not one, but two untended bonfires blazing.
This doesn’t happen in safety-crazed Toronto, where Dufferin Grove Park regulars are pleading to keep their beloved rinkside fires, and where there are actually signs reading “Caution: Water’s Edge” at a place called “Harbourfront.” So I stopped to investigate. Over the course of 15 minutes, about a dozen locals came through the park, many of them stopping briefly to warm up. That’s when it dawned on me — Montreal “gets” winter.
Thanks to Wallie Seto for finding this
Comment on Patrick Mullin's article from Montreal student Roxi Bechmann:
I haven't seen those specific untended fires, but I have definitely seen other fairly unattended fires especially in the evening. There are a lot of festivals and festival-esque community things around here, and every one of them has an outdoor fire or two.
The park has a year-round fire permit, so gathering around a campfire with your friends is pretty easy. These are the rules: if you want to borrow the permit, you need to have a little campfire training session with one of the park staff, during staff hours (staff always stay late on Wednesdays and Thursdays, if daytimes are no good for you). It takes about 15 minutes to go over everything. At that time you can also let the staff know where you plan to have the fire (there are three possible fire sites).
You need to bring your own firewood but we can usually give you some kindling if you like. We'll give you two pails of water and a shovel, which have to be returned to the rink house at the end of your fire.
The person who signs the permit takes full legal responsibility for any injury -- there's a waiver that you'll have to sign. (But people are pretty smart about fires - in 11 years of frequent park campfires, we’ve not yet had an injury.) We ask you for a donation of $10, just to cover staff time. To book, call the park at 416 392-0913