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News 2014

News 2014

From the June 2014 Newsletter:

The cob cafe

The cob courtyard and outdoor kitchen beside the playground has been getting its yearly overhaul. New shingles, wall fixes, counters repaired, new plaster and lime wash. The cob courtyard cafe will be ready in time for summer. The next step is to keep children off the shingles. Walking on the shingles breaks them. Parents and caregivers: you probably don’t allow your kids to walk on your roof at home. Same goes for the cob shingles. If you see any child (not necessarily your own) climbing on the cob wall, tell them to get down right away. It takes a village to raise a child, and in the case of the cob courtyard cafe, everybody can help keep it from being damaged by kids climbing on it.

How summer programs used to be run in Toronto:

From Cawthra Park friend Shirley Bell: “When my kids were little (they're 33 and 27 now) there used to be "trainers" (what we called the park staff) in the parks from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm - yes, 9:00 pm! - during the summer. There were three staff who worked staggered hours and switched their days around, so it wasn't like anyone was working a 12-hour day. The wading pools were open, if I remember correctly, from around 10:00 (it took time to fill) till 6:00. (They started draining it around 5:45 or so). "My" park was a tiny one but was it ever busy, both during the day and in the evenings! The trainers played board games with the kids and taught them how to make gimp bracelets. Pails and shovels and muckers (?) - a kind of ring toss game - were supplied by the City. I loved it especially in the evenings because all the parents who worked outside the home would take their kids to the park after supper. It made for such a wonderful feeling of community. We all had the opportunity to get to know each other, and the trainers, too. Every year there was a potluck supper with entertainment (the trainers worked hard with the kids, rehearsing skits, songs, and dances, to put on the show) and a special guest, e.g. Blinky the talking police car or a fire truck from the local fire hall. It was such a wonderful win-win-win situation - for kids, parents, and students - and a way to generate a sense of community for all. *Sigh* Those were the days!”

In those days (the 1990s) Toronto’s parks and recreation budget was considerably lower than today, yet all programs were free. Free programs meant that recreation staff’s time was not taken over by finance-related data entry as it is now, but was spent working with children and families. Fewer managers were needed. Something to learn from, when thinking about how to help our parks work better!

From the May 2014 Newsletter:

How the “cob courtyard” outdoor kitchen was made: City staff and community working together

The cob courtyard and kitchen, made of mud, straw and mosaics, is now in its ninth year, and it’s held up remarkably well. But like anything else in parks – benches, tables, field houses, irrigation systems – the cob structure needs regular maintenance. Since the City of Toronto ended its partnership with CELOS, the maintenance of the cob has been a bit of a cliff-hanger. Parks management and Rec management sometimes disagree about whose responsibility the maintenance is, and that can turn into a bit of a staring contest – who will blink first? Some of the existing recreation program staff were part of the community project support from the beginning, and they know how to do the maintenance, but it’s not easy for them to get management approval for the work time, when it’s needed. That has to improve.

A little history: In 2004, a Public Health food safety inspector directed park staff to install four sinks and a fridge down by the wading pool beside the playground. The park staff had been operating a little food cart, with park bread and cookies and salads and organic hot dogs, at the playground every day during the summers. After a few years of this, the inspector – rightly – said that this was a regular food operation, not an occasional special event, and therefore would need a regular water source and cooling facilities.

Georgie Donais, a frequent park user with two young children, told park friends at a meeting that she had long been interested in building a shelter in the park, using an old building technique called cob – constructing a building with oval hand-shaped building blocks made by mixing clay, sand, straw, and water. (“Cob” is an old English word for an oval bread loaf.) Georgie asked: “How about building a cob shelter for the new sinks and fridge?” She was confident that she could find enough materials and enlist enough volunteers to help her build.

We thought she was dreaming, about the volunteers. But nobody could talk her out of the project, so it got underway. To avoid the need for a building permit – which a cob structure wouldn’t be able to get – Georgie changed the plan to a sink-and-food counter backed by a long cob wall that twisted around at both ends, allowing her to demonstrate a stub of a green roof at one loop and to put in a diaper-changing counter at the other. Walls and counters didn’t seem to need a building permit. The park staff asked the city plumbers and electricians if they could install the sinks and wiring – and they agreed. After all, sinks and wiring were an order from Public Health. That was a bit of luck for the park, getting help from the City’s trades staff.

Georgie’s friends and family started the project off, digging the serpentine trench for the wall’s foundation. They laid down trench liner and weeping tile, then filled in the trench with broken-up concrete sidewalk chunks and gravel. With the help of Parks maintenance staff, they brought in piles of clay and sand and bales of straw, for volunteers to work with.

The walls began to rise. All summer long, they rose, with ever more people helping to shape the cob “loaves” that took the place of bricks. A Greek man, who used to bring his grandkids to the wading pool, turned out to be very good at making window molds. He spent a month of the summer helping the other volunteer builders to structure the top half of the wall, with places to insert shelves and “stained glass” light wells made with wine bottles. Silvie Varone and Simon Evans, both theatre-set builders, who live up the street from the park, undertook to make all the sink-and-food-prep counters and cupboards themselves. They did it with skill and whimsy, using barn board, banging out old cutlery to make door handles for the cupboards, breaking up old tiles for mosaic countertops.

And the city plumbers and electricians were not put off by this highly unusual job site. They worked alongside the cob builders to embed the wiring and PVC pipe for five sinks.

As the summer wore on, Georgie, whose two children were still very young then, was often exhausted despite the daily help of her husband Alan. But with a great deal of on-site recreation staff support, she and the park friends kept on. Toward the end of August, Georgie announced that the five-hundredth volunteer had signed the cob project’s participant book. Among these five hundred were many children. Georgie said that’s what she had wanted most – for children to understand through their hands that they could build a playground cafe – or a house, or a cob bake-oven – even if the usual building materials were not at hand.

When the “cob courtyard” was finished – the walls glittering with tile mosaics, five sinks in working order, a bar fridge tucked into an alcove and another one under the counter – there was a party in the park. The park staff strung Christmas lights in the trees and brought down hotel pans of casseroles from the bake-ovens. Hundreds of park friends came to celebrate their joint accomplishment, but miraculously there was enough food for everyone. There were candles glowing in every little shelf and crevice of the cob cafe-courtyard, and children danced and played around the edges of the party until late into the night.

Since that time, there have been nine years of tasty playground food – with Public Health approval. Some push from park users, for the city to schedule good cob maintenance, can bring nine+nine more years. Ask the park staff for city management contact information.

News 2013

Cob maintenance

Good news! Park program staff are allowed to repair the cob cafe structure after all. (At first they were told they couldn't.) See the photo gallery.

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