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[April 2002] Sand play in history
The Big Back Yard
The first Metro Parks Commissioner, after World War Two, was Tommy Thompson, much beloved for his love of parks and his good sense. (He put up signs in the parks: please walk on the grass.) We're doing some research at the Toronto Archives for this year's annual report, and we came across a speech he gave at a Parks Conference, in which he told his colleagues: "I passed a playground the other day in which I saw a sandbox that I suspect was twelve feet square. To me, this is an insult to the sand area concept. The time has come when we've got to get bigger in our thinking and realize that, when a group of kids want to carry out something that stimulates their imagination - and this is one of the things we should be responsible for promoting - we should be putting in a sand area half as big as this auditorium. We should be putting in the kind of sand that kids can use to build, and we should not only keep it clean every day, but make sure that it's moist enough to do something with."
Sounds good to us, Tommy Thompson. (You were a smart man.) As soon as the weather gets warm, we'll sweep the sand pit daily and keep it moist, so the kids can build. We'll try to get new tipi poles from Forestry, and we'll use the money left from the winter snack bar to buy new shovels. Any donations very welcome: tipi poles, short shovels, metal pots and pans. Leave them by the rink house door or call the park clubhouse at 416/391-0913 for pick-up.
We've got a head start this spring on play-pot donations: Ann Bjorseth picked up two big stacks of excellent pots at the end of a garage sale, for very little money, and gave them to the park. We hope other people will imitate Ann, because pots are a lot of fun in the sand "kitchen."
The "Big Backyard" -- how Dufferin Grove's sandpit developed: Read more >>
[August 2002] Wading Pool strike politics
The city shut down all wading pools as soon as CUPE Local 416 went on strike, even though the wading pool workers were not yet on strike (different union Local). This city lock-out was a big issue for us since there was a bad heat wave already and many families in this neighbourhood do not have air conditioning and live in small quarters. On June 28, a small deputation from the neighbourhood scheduled a "play date" with their children - in Mayor Lastman's office. This confrontation included Sat Khalsa and his two sons, Marie Foley and her two daughters, Emily Visser and Bernard King and their two daughters, Andrew Munger and his daughter, and Kathleen Foley and her two daughters. But attempts to interest the media in the "play date" and the city's lock-out of wading pool staff were unsuccessful, and the mayor was not there. However one of the mayor's assistants gave all the kids commemorative coins with a picture of the mayor on them..
Then on Canada Day, July 1, Jutta Mason held a safety-training day for all the wading pool staff (whose CUPE union Local 79 was still not on strike). Many people from the neighbourhood came to participate with their children on that extremely hot day, in order to give the wading pool staff real-situation training (rather than just in a meeting-room). While the children were cooling off in the training pool, a petition, with many names on it, was circulated, asking Claire Tucker-Reid, General Manager of Parks and Recreation, to re-open all city wading pools while the staff were not on strike.
The petition arrived at City Hall a few hours after Commissioner Joe Halstead had announced the re-opening of some wading pools on July 2 (because of wide-spread criticism of the city's lock-out). But then at noon on July 3, Local 79 went out on strike and all the pools were shut again. The heat persisted, and discussions between the city and the union faltered and broke down.
At Trinity-Bellwoods Park some parents got hold of the wading pool key and began filling the pool themselves, but Park management staff caught them, drained the pool and padlocked it.
Revolt: On July 8, with no progress in negotiations, all seven of our park summer staff petitioned their employer to let them opt out of the strike and re-open the wading pool. Although many city summer staff are not union members (casual staff must work a total of 1000 hours to be included in the union), many of our summer staff are from pro-union backgrounds. They made their opting-out decision with difficulty. But they agreed with many people in the neighbourhood that the children were being held to ransom in a very dysfunctional conflict.
After days of uncertainty, on July 11 Park Director Don Boyle made the decision to approve the opting-out application. In a pre-dawn, five-a.m. phone conversation after Don had been working all night at the city management command headquarters, he told Jutta Mason about his concerns. There was a good chance that a picket line would be set up around the wading pool by both CUPE Local 79 and CUPE Local 416 workers (who are not otherwise involved in the running of wading pools). Don said there had been some strong-arm shoving by Steelworkers Union members when they joined the CUPE picket line at Metro Hall the day before. Tempers were getting hot. But despite worries about such a confrontation, Don said that he had decided to back up the neighbourhood in support of the summer staff petition.
After our May and June community meetings, he said, he had concluded that relations between his department and this neighbourhood were different now. So if we were willing to support a possibly difficult confrontation, he would support us.
The summer staff had one final serious meeting about their plans to re-open the wading pool - factoring in how they would behave if faced with a picket line - at five p.m. on July 11. Summer staff Luke Cayley came in later, with some important information: Premier Ernie Eves had successfully negotiated a back-to-work order. There would be no confrontation, no national TV news footage of angry parents and crying children blocked from splashing in the wading pool. Thank goodness!
[Fall 2002] How the summer went at the park:
This was one of the hottest, driest summers Toronto has had in a very long time. The sunny spots in the park were empty until the evening, but the shady spots were often packed. The wading pool and the playground got heavy use. On many evenings (whenever the temperature was over 30 celsius) the wading pool had extended hours until 8 p.m.. So many parents and caregivers told us that the shady, breezy wading pool area rescued them this summer. Good! That's what parks are for!
The sandpit was the most popular spot for the kids older than toddlers. This year tipi building gave way to river construction. Our Lee Valley Company movable faucet was a waterfall, a fountain, a river source, a lake spring. And we noticed that the turf battles that used to happen when tipis were built in the sand pit ("you can't come in here, this is MY tipi!") gave way to much more cooperative play. Children who didn't know each other before collaborated on creating miniature water landscapes that extended far beyond the sand pit, throughout the whole Big Back Yard play area.
Our oven builder, Nigel Dean, kindly brought an old styrofoam "Sunfish" boat down from Muskoka, in his truck. Some of the time the boat was in the wading pool, full of children. The rest of the time it was in the sand pit, where the children would often dig a little lake, to float the boat. By the end of the summer the boat finally broke, but it had a good run.
The park has become ever more of a picnic / birthday party/ prenatal-class-reunion/ etc. spot. Some weekends this past summer, the Indonesian hibachi smells mingled with the Sudanese braziers, and with the park pizza oven and the KFC bags at the basketball court, in such a way that the park smelled like a street market. Other times it seemed like every third tree held a birthday pinata. All this sociability was made easier by the plentiful picnic tables we got this year from the Parks Department, so that no one had trouble finding a place to sit. Thank you to park supervisor Mike Hindle and his maintenance crew.
[July 2003] The politics of water in the park: Harmonization
On Monday June 23, the park staff prepared to open the wading pool a week early (the temperature was 31 degrees celsius and rising). But just before noon Ron Winn, the interim district park manager, called and said he had spoken to the general manager of Parks and Recreation, Claire Tucker Reid, and that we would NOT be permitted to have the wading pool open until the regular summer opening date, at the end of the week. The policy of "harmonization" of services mandated keeping all the wading pools closed until they could all be opened at the same time, on a previously established schedule.
We were told to turn on the four-foot spurt of water at the centre of the wading pool instead, to act as a "cooling station." So for two sweltering days we were treated to the spectacle of an empty wading pool with people sitting all around this little water spurt. Six or eight kids at a time had some fun versus the 30 or 40 who can dance in and out of pool when it's filled with water.
Jutta Mason e-mailed Ms. Tucker Reid, on Monday afternoon, to seek a change of mind, but she did not reply. People contacted their friends across the city, as the temperature continued to rise, and they passed phone numbers and e-mails back and forth. Our park phone rang and rang. Jutta put City Councillor Mario Silva's number on the voice mail since people couldn't be standing there answering the phone all the time. People got all sorts of replies from the city staff they lobbied: that the wading pool couldn't be opened because of security issues (?), lack of training, lack of budget, or because of various risk factors; that we already had a lovely splash pad (the four-foot water spurt), that maybe we'd open in two hours, maybe we'd open in July, maybe they'd put you on hold or give you another number to call -- chaos.
Then on Wednesday morning we were allowed to open after all. By noon the word was out and the pool was full of kids, normal for a hot day.
Many people who use the park wrote letters and called the city about the pool openings. Isaac Meyer Odell sent us a copy of his letter:
Dear Ms. Tucker Reid,
I'm writing to you in hopes that you might reconsider the decision to suppress the early opening of the Dufferin Grove Park wading pool. Today, I spent several frustrating hours petitioning Councillor Silva's office to open the pool. The answer we received from the councillor's office was that if there was sufficient staff there then the pool ought to be opened. Yet the park staff were told to keep it closed. This experience left us all with sour feelings about the bureaucratic mechanisms of the city that seem to have no way of responding to the immediate concerns of our community.
As a new parent I have become keenly aware of what a precious thing it is to live close to such a park. My son and I go there every day to connect with our community and seek refuge from the tedium of daily life. As the summer heat has advanced upon us I have discovered that the only cool area of my home is the basement. I do not relish having to keep my son in the basement when there seems to be such wonderful resource just around the corner. Given that the weather report does not show that there will be any relief in sight, I ask you to please reconsider.
Isaac Meyer Odell
Editorial: the "harmonization" policy
It seems to me that having "harmonization" as the cornerstone of park policy - meaning, that every part of the city gets the same services/ facilities - has worked out badly and will continue that way. It inevitably has the (unwanted) effect of dragging all our facilities down to the same low level. There should be fairness, there MUST be improvement, but if the city could please adopt "maximum use of existing resources" as the cornerstone instead, I think we could attain our fairness goal so much better. The folks in charge CANNOT continue to keep rinks and pools sitting idle well after the season for them has begun.
The broad hammer that gets used to apply the "one size fits all" approach (which "harmonization" seems to lead to) is such a clumsy instrument. In the matter of opening the wading pools to suit the weather, for instance, the Dufferin Park pool is in an unusual situation -- at mid-day the pool and our whole playground are almost completely in shade. For that reason, on hot days, the whole area is full of people. Park wading pools that haven't got tree cover are not much used on really hot days. So during an early heat wave the wading pools could be opened selectively, focusing on pools with shade. In the case of unshaded pools, resources could be used instead to plant (and care for) trees around their perimeter. That would be so much more sensible than opening all the pools simultaneously by applying the "harmonization" rule.
God help us, that we won't have to carry on too many more of these shake-the-bushes campaigns to get the city staff to let the citizens use the simple, cheap amenities of public space - outdoor rinks, wading pools, picnic areas. It is my impression that if city staff don't find a way to plan ahead better and to alter their policies so that they can fit logic, citizens will progressively lose confidence in their ability to carry out their stewardship responsibilities.
[July 2003] The many joys of water in the park
Our wading pool
On the first hot day this season, Sunday June 22, there was water all over the park - not a flood, but a stream of good uses of the water that comes to us from Lake Ontario. In the sandpit by the playground, the hose was connected to the tap we bought from Lee Valley Tools. All day, between 10 and 30 kids (and some of their parents) were making channels for a river system - with lots of bridges -that wound through the sandpit and out into further "rivers" leading south. A sprinkler was set up in the wading pool (which was not yet open), and kids were not only running through the sprinkler but also finding out all the ways in which a hose could be kinked to change the water flow and trick people. Up by the pizza oven there was another sprinkler. Kids ran through that one too, and so did the performers from Clay and Paper Theatre when they'd finished their parade through Councillor Silva's annual Summerfest flea market. To the north of the rink house, the Eagles soccer club was running a car wash. They sudsed tow trucks as well as the cars they flagged down at the Dufferin mall light, and at the end they also sudsed each other.
A hose led to the new cherry trees, which need a lot of water when they're just getting established, and another hose snaked in and out of Arie Kemp's poppy garden beside the hockey rink. Arie no longer looks after the park gardens but his legacy is evident all over - as the "seed man" he collected the most beautiful seeds he could find all over the city and sowed them in our park, and by now every crack in the concrete and every flowerbed has his flowers re-seeding themselves. Those flowers get thirsty, so we water them.
From 10 until 3, Councillor Silva and his assistants filled up their big coolers at the sink in our half-finished park kitchen and hauled them back to the Summerfest table for free drinks made with orange powder. Later, when it was time to wash the dishes from the pizza oven, the cooks sprayed one another with our new kitchen sprayer - it has very strong spray that is excellent for cleaning dishes and for park staff waterfights. The waterfight theme was repeated at most of the birthday parties and barbecues happening throughout the park. One of the parties was partly on stilts, because many of the guests - as well as the host - were stiltwalkers. They danced on stilts, leaned up against the high branches of trees, and the host had an orange and a green water pistol with which he was allowed to squirt anyone he chose, on stilts or on the ground.
At the end of the afternoon the kids at the playground disconnected the sprinkler from the hose and tried to use the hose to fill the pool. There was so much silt left over from the winter that the drains plugged and the pool really did begin to fill - with dark brown opaque mud-water. Kids splashed in this mukky soup and then used their plastic shovels to unplug the drains - with help from some grownups - so that there would be no standing water during the night.
Eventually, everyone went home. All that was left by way of sound late at night was the sprinkler, swishing water back and forth between the roses and the potato plants in the adjoining park flower and vegetable gardens. What a great thing, a park in a city beside a huge lake full of water to draw on, on a hot day.