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Feb.6 meeting follow-up post #9

The staff

In her most recent defense of the changes proposed for the Dufferin Grove rink house and rink, City Councillor Ana Bailao alluded to “the incredible neighbourhood involvement and mix of community and cultural programming that is unique to Dufferin Grove Park.” A lot of people say this was done by volunteers. One consultant’s report said that “these uses have grown organically over time” – like a garden that just emerges and flourishes on its own.

Actually, that's not the way it happened. Most of the things that people like about Dufferin Grove Park were shaped by the part-time Rec staff who worked there, and by the supervisor who formerly supported that shaping – not by volunteers. And much of what these staff built over the years is now cracked and sagging – no matter how pretty the façade still appears at times. This post is about how that disintegration happened, and how it may connect to the Northwest Corner “Revitalization” Project.

To go back:

A few women from the neighbourhood began to try things in the playground and the rink in 1993. I was one of them, and I stayed around after the others had moved on. But once things really got lively, and Tino DeCastro (the Ward 18 Rec supervisor) began hiring more part-time staff, it was those staff who made things work, and made them work better and better – the rink, the playground, the market, the suppers, the performances, the gardening, the youth programs, the openings made for other people’s talents. I tried to help out whenever the staff's efforts were threatened, but after about 2002 my main activity was bearing witness (with the help of the park newsletter) and giving suggestions. Some of my suggestions were good and some were just annoying and impractical. The staff put up with me because everyone understood that this was a kind of laboratory. The research was to find out how a park could become a place where strangers might find friends. The idea was always to build on what was already available (spaces, people), rather than starting from scratch.

As the park got more and more interesting, so did the people who wanted to work there. There are a lot of glitches when you try something new. When glitches are overcome and really good things start to happen, it’s exciting. The staff were paid for the hours they were scheduled to work, but they often worked longer, unpaid, when a task got engrossing.

The experiments at the Dufferin Grove “lab” accomplished a lot. But meantime, down at city hall, something quite different was unfolding. In the aftermath of the city’s forced amalgamation, there were struggles over power and philosophy. At Parks and Rec, the managers who came out on top resolved to “harmonize” the way the parks and the rec centres were run, making them more or less interchangeable in the centrally-mandated “services” they supplied. The “business” of the department came to be called “customer service.” Public space became something to market.

The staff and park friends at Dufferin Grove were of course not invited to be part of the city hall struggles. Nor would there have been much time. Dufferin Grove Park had begun to feel too crowded sometimes, especially in winter. People were coming to the rink from all over the city. The crowding made no sense, since Toronto is the world capital of outdoor artificial ice rinks, and there are such rinks in every neigbourhood. But many outdoor rinks were so unpleasant that people avoided them and came to Dufferin Grove instead.

Eventually the staff took on the problem (of being swamped) as a new challenge. They put together a little pocket-size booklet of suggestions for how to make a rink work well (reliable schedules, flyers for rink opening day, skates, food, storybooks, places to sit, a campfire). Then they began to visit other rinks to give their Rec colleagues copies of the booklet, and talk about what worked and what didn’t. They helped me to set up the website with descriptions of each rink. The staff even briefly had permission to run a rink hotline, so that they could tell callers about the nearest rink to where they lived.

Good, right?

No, bad. Rules were being broken, policy ignored. It seems clear in hindsight that the more that management downtown heard (or read in the news) about what was going on at Dufferin Grove, the more alarmed they became. Part-time staff – the bottom of the ladder – were being allowed to schedule their own shifts according to the budget (even encouraged by their supervisor!) – staff had published a “how to” booklet without permission – they were visiting other rinks without staying on a centrally-approved message – they were promoting hot chocolate and mini-pizzas and skate-lending and campfires, and the leafleting of the neighbourhood, to their colleagues at other rinks. In short, staff were deciding together (with a lot of day-to-day community input) what work needed doing, not waiting for orders from the top.

What would they do next??

Dufferin Grove staff’s reputation downtown gradually got worse. During the same time, the general managers of Parks and Rec (and their directors, the next level down) kept changing. Business plans and restructuring plans and visioning plans were made and revised and remade and revised. In the background, Dufferin Grove seems to have turned into a kind of scandal. Finally, in 2011, it was time for management to come and clean house.

The supervisor who helped make the good things happen was removed from Dufferin Grove and reassigned to supervise building-caretakers instead of recreation programs. The on-site staff at the park were warned that they were in a serious conflict of interest, because of their close working relationship with me and their responsiveness to other park users. Over the next eight years, a series of supervisors were assigned to bring Dufferin Grove staff in line with the rest of the city.

Instead of finding ways to pass the Dufferin Grove staff’s experience on to their colleagues at other rinks and parks, city management worked to integrate the staff into their proper places within a tight hierarchy. But of course, once a door has been opened and there’s a foot in there, it’s not so easy to close it. Cancelling the programs that existed around the rink, oven, and playground would have been impolitic. Instead, the programs got set in cement and the staff were retrained to run them “properly.” I’ve written about that often enough that lots of people know the story. New staff were brought in, many old ones left, staff were told that they must do only the exact tasks they were assigned. “It’s not my job” became the standard. The food income went steadily down while the operating costs went way up. (The food income and the costs are a secret – to track them I had to go through the city’s Freedom of Information office.)

And now the park has arrived at a crossroads. After eight years of management's attempts to get the Dufferin Grove programs under control, things are still in a mess. The current staff are often unhappy – about a long list of grievances ranging from constant pay errors to erratic staff scheduling to a frustrating lack of support from their much-better-paid off-site supervisors. Nobody wants to work at the adventure playground. Nobody wants to learn how to keep the cob café in good repair. Some staff say no to snow shovelling and cleaning the building, leaving their colleagues resentful but with no recourse. So what is to be done?

The Northwest Corner "Revitalization" Project offers a possible solution. If someone can’t get their house in order after eight years, maybe it would be better to pull it down and start over with a clean slate?

During the time that the Dufferin Grove rink and “northwest corner” transformation has been in planning meetings, a new ship has come sailing out of city hall. It’s called “place-making.” It docked at Parks and Rec at the end of January, when a city media release announced that there would be four weekend “rink socials” at four different outdoor rinks, brokered by the Evergreen Foundation with the help of a Montreal place-making firm called La Pépinière. The release said:

“The initiative, made possible with the financial support of the Bombardier Foundation, brings together community leaders, City staff, the public and experts in place-making to bring new life to some of Toronto’s parks and recreation facilities.”

At last, people in Toronto could begin to learn how to use campfires, food, and skate lending to take the sting out of winter.

The four weekends of pop-up "place-making" had recreation staff from various rinks offering colouring books and acrylic yarn to make crafts, and lending out the skates that CELOS (unacknowledged) had donated to the city last year. The Parks and Rec partnership office got Evergreen staff to buy special place-making furniture and play equipment and propane-fuelled air warmers. And then, perhaps because Parks and Rec management couldn’t think of any of their own staff who could set up campfires or food or comfortable places to sit, Evergreen was hired to run each of the place-making pop-ups.

The city manager’s office says they can’t tell us how much Bombardier donated to fund the project because that’s private information. We do know that -- until 2011 -- campfires, skate lending, and food cooked and served at Dufferin Grove used to make money for the park (over $90,000 in 2010 after the groceries were paid for), to put back into programming. There was no need for Bombardier or any other giant corporation to fund “place-making,” and no need for book-keeping secrets either.

One of the ironies of this expensive helicopter “place-making” was that no one from city hall asked Dufferin Grove staff for help, or even acknowledged that they might know anything. The 15 years during which the city’s own staff had helped to fill three Ward 18 rinks with fun and friendship – and the staff had tried hard to pass it on – have simply been erased as though they never existed.


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