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May 2014

Dufferin Grove Park Newsletter


May 2014 newsletter

building the cob kitchen, 2005

Special event this month:

The First Friday Night Supper of the season: May 30, 6 pm

Supper will be around the bake oven as usual, at the picnic tables or bring a blanket. The main dish is a choice of meat or vegan, and a salad, with a $7 requested donation. Dessert is a $3.00 requested donation, and will feature Knuckle Down Farm's first fresh produce of the season, rhubarb! As has been the custom for some years, the first outdoor supper of the year will be cooked by staff and friends of the Children’s Storefront (it’s located at Bloor and Shaw), as a fundraiser to support the free programming offered there. Lea Ambros, now the cook at the Storefront, is the lead cook for May 30 – appropriately, since she and her friend Dan DeMatteis started the popular park suppers, back in 2003, when they worked at the park. And way before that, the Children’s Storefront was the inspiration for much of what works well at the park playground – including having good food there for families.

Annual Dufferin Grove Clothing Swap, May 31 and Jun 1, 10am to 2pm

Saturday May 31st - drop off. Sunday June 1st - shop From the organizers: Bring your clean unwanted, never worn, it? TOO BIG too small CLOTHING to the Dufferin Grove Rinkhouse on SATURDAY. Come back Sunday. Walk away with something FABULOUS that you WILL wear. The remainder will be donated to local charitable organizations! Want to volunteer? Email us at subject “swap volunteer”

Norwegian Constitution Day parade and picnic, Saturday May 17th: 11.30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

This is the ninth year of this event at Dufferin Grove, started by park neighbour (and Norwegian) Arne Nes. And it’s the 200th year of this Norwegian celebration! Location: centre of the park, across the path from the playground. Wonderful costumes.

Skateboarding and BMX riding at the Dufferin Grove rink pad:

Toronto has 13 official skateboard sites and 2 BMX facilities citywide, with a few more under construction or planned. There are also some other courses – like the one at Dufferin Grove – built by users with varying degrees of City staff help. Actually, the culture of these sports often seems to lean toward DIY courses. For example, the Dufferin Grove staff have heard from BMXers that they prefer come to Dufferin Grove rink pad to ride their BMX bikes, using whatever ramps, boxes, ledges, and grind rails are there, and adding to them. They say that although they are aware of the BMX facility up the road next to the Galleria Mall, Dufferin Grove is more appealing to the older (25+) crowds.

Okay. But over $200,000 was spent to build the BMX course at Wallace. At Dufferin Grove the City supplies some building materials for the skateboard ramps and the jump boxes. It contributes some staff hours for labour and maintenance. But the materials the city is willing to pay for are cheap, and so the ramps need to be repaired a lot. There are only a few skilled carpenter-skateboarders/ BMXers who know how to do the repairs, but large numbers of skaters and riders (from younger teens to 25+) come out to enjoy themselves. This is not a viable formula over the long term: many users + not enough resources for maintenance = a clock that’s ticking on the Dufferin Grove skateboard course (with added BMX).

To make the most of the available DIY input and youth enthusiasm, active partnerships between users and the City will have to become part of the city’s approach to these sports. That means funding an equal half of the maintenance-labour costs, and funding better-quality materials that will last longer. This year there was not a single skateable structure left at Dufferin Grove from the end of last year. The skateboarders have been trying to get the attention of City Councillor Ana Bailao to tell her that better support of this de facto skateboard facility would be a good way to use our taxes. But so far not much luck....

A little park history from the sixties

On Easter Monday, near the end of April, John Ota came for a walkabout in the park. He was a long-time resident of Gladstone Ave, just north of the park. John said that his Japanese-Canadian family moved onto the street in 1955. At that time Gladstone Avenue was continuous right through the park. John remembered that during his youth it was a speedway, with young drivers gunning their engines and racing through the park, right past the playground, at high speed. Kids were sometimes hit. But the road was kept open until 1973.

In the 1960s there were plans to tear down the Gladstone houses north of the park and put up more high rises like the ones at Dovercourt and Bloor. A developer began to assemble land, but some of the residents refused to sell. Protests against replacing houses with high-rise developments spread through various areas of the city, including this one.  So in the end the houses remained, many of them becoming multi-family or rooming houses until the 1980s.

John said that a fair number of Japanese-Canadian families moved into this neighbourhood in the 1950s. Anti-Japanese sentiment was sometimes hard for those families during and right after World War Two, but around here, he said, they were made to feel welcome. And the park was one of the best things in the neighbourhood for him as he was growing up.

The day after his visit, John sent word that he “had a wonderful time walking and talking about the past, present and future of the park I love.”

The strange story of Public Health and their citywide wading pool regulations

Soon it will be summer and the wading pools will open – and close and re-open, close and reopen, every two or three hours. Since Public Health got much more involved with the wading pools a few years ago, these once well-used neighborhood play pools have become a lot less enjoyable for families. Public Health inspectors require higher levels of (possibly toxic) added chlorine. They require constant draining and refilling, which never allows the water to warm up at all. They say that during the long slow periods of draining, no one is allowed in the pools because the force of the draining water might maim or kill the children. Inquiries about the evidence backing the frustrating new regulations have been ignored up to now. But as of May 1 2014, there is a revised Public Health Standard, which now says that Public Health officials “...shall foster community and citizen engagement in the evaluation of programs and services.” This ought to be an opportunity. A full report is coming in the June newsletter, with some constructive suggestions to help the bureaucracy reconnect to the real world of happy – and healthy – splashing children.

Election Year: 2014.

In an election year, it suddenly becomes easier to get the politicians’ attention. They want to talk! And new candidates arrive, with new ideas (some of which might make it past election day). Problems that have been languishing unaddressed finally make it onto the radar. So, dear park friends, don’t despair of democracy: this is the year to try again, see if some good changes can actually be accomplished.

At the end of April, mayoral candidate David Soknacki toured Dufferin Grove Park, visited the farmers’ market, and asked a lot of questions about how the parks are working. Mr. Soknacki was a city councillor for Scarborough for three terms, and he was the city’s budget chief from 2003 to 2006. When he left politics in 2006 to put his attention back into his spice importing business, the Globe’s municipal columnist wrote "[Soknacki] took on one of the toughest jobs in city hall, which he professionalized to the point where it almost seemed easy... he's not really a politician at all."

Mr. Soknacki was known as a fiscal conservative who could work with any side, no hard feelings. He’s now putting together a parks platform, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with. In conversation at the park, he said he wanted (1) much less of the current “one size fits all” approach and (2) more staff support for local community projects. He felt that (3) parks should not be regarded primarily as a financial asset that could generate permit fees. In a more general way, on his website, he promises (4) less secrecy at City Hall, (5) open access to city financial data and (6) less red tape.

How Mr. Soknacki’s ideas might help Parks and Rec work better:

1. less “one size fits all” – central control and the resulting micromanagement have produced some real bottlenecks at Parks and Rec. An example: the citywide “one size fits all” community bake oven policy was years in the making, with staff-only meetings at city hall and minimal local input. The few existing ovens now get less use (except at Dufferin Grove, which is fortunate in being “grandfathered”) and only one new oven was built in the last ten years.
2. More staff support for local projects: if park friends (individually or as a group) want to organize community campfires or play music for their neighbours or put on small local events, that should not be an occasion to charge them a fee and insurance. An example: people who have campfires at Dufferin Grove don’t have to pay insurance, and they get some staff support, because campfires are an important asset to the park – they help make the park friendlier and more sociable (and safer at night). It’s an inexpensive way to make the park better. Dufferin Grove should be a model for this kind of collaboration, but right now it’s an anomaly – staff support of that kind is rare in other parks.
3. Less emphasis on permit fees: The park advocacy group Toronto Park People has been asking councillors to stop charging park friends permit fees and insurance for doing volunteer-run community events in their local parks. At Trinity-Bellwoods, park friends had to pay insurance for doing a park planting day. Groups in some parks are charged for doing a neighbourhood pumpkin parade the day after Halloween, lighting up the late-fall darkness and bringing people together. Toronto Park People has pointed to the natural skating rinks as the best model for encouraging park friends to make parks better: there’s no permit fee, no insurance fee, and very short and clear paperwork, and there’s some staff support from park maintenance crews. (That leaves only the fun part for the park friends– standing out in the bitter cold spraying water many nights, and shovelling mountains of snow after snowstorms.)\\ 4. an end to City Hall secrecy, and
5. open access to information: An example: from 1993 to 2012, there was an active if sometimes contentious partnership at Dufferin Grove Park between the City and park friends. In 2001, some park friends formed a charitable group called the “Centre Local Research into Public Space,” CELOS for short (pronounced “sea-loss”). CELOS worked with park staff to help park friends realize their projects, to channel money raised back into the park, and to make sure the accounts were accurate and publicly available. After City management took over the programs in 2012, it became harder to track the financial details. CELOS alerted management in January that a problem with city book-keeping meant some park expenses and income were not showing up in the city’s system. That alert made the door shut completely: on-site park staff are no longer allowed to let CELOS check the park’s income and expense numbers. Such secrecy is unacceptable. The City should provide open access to all their financial data, treating citizens as equal partners in the project of making things work.
6. Less red tape: An example of red tape: a neighbourhood movie-in-the-park night in Scarborough was connected with so much paperwork and fees – for bringing in a projector, screen and a popcorn machine – that the group had to cancel the park event. They held the event at an outdoor spot beside the local Toronto Public Library instead – with little paperwork and no fees. Another example: in a downtown corner parkette there has been a community “party in the park” for five years, very well attended. This year the organizers were told that for the first time, they have to pay $100 for an official “noise assessment” – because a small neighbourhood jazz group always plays at the park event. Mr.Soknacki just rolled his eyes when he heard this story – unacceptable! “Less red tape” at Parks and Rec will be very welcome.

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.

Dufferin Grove ex-staff star in a great new play, until May 18

Dufferin Grove has had quite a run of remarkable staff with multiple talents. Some have gone on to be philosophers, cooks, lawyers, novelists, teachers, mothers, actors. Christina Serra and Dan Watson, two former Dufferin Grove staff who were also long-time members of the “Cooking Fire Theatre Festival” at the park, are starring in a wonderful comedy at the new Theatre Centre on Queen Street, on until May 18. The story is about Christina's real-life immigrant-Italian grandparents, Lina and Ralph. Food plays quite a role in the plot, as do sewing machines, ocean liners, and love.... more >>

The playground cob-kitchen cafe

Depending on staff availability and the weather, there will be coffee and snacks available at the playground on weekends from mid-May.

The playground needs building materials for the kids!

For years now, staff have had to warn parents and caregivers to bring some good reading materials when they bring their kids to play at the Dufferin Grove sandpit. The kids are so busy making rivers and dams and forts and gardens that they never want to leave. BUT: over time, the building materials get used up. This year there are very few poles, almost no A-frames, rocks, tree branches or stumps. Many playgrounds are swamped with plastic cast-off toys, just to give the children some loose parts to play with. But wood and natural materials work better at our adventure playground. Please help – bring left-over building materials to the park!

Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market, every Thursday from 3 to 7, in and around the rinkhouse.

Market manager Anne Freeman in her weekly market news, sent this story by market vendor Linda from Country Meadows farm: “On Monday I was working away in the greenhouse transplanting and listening to my radio. It was sunny so I had rolled up the sides of the greenhouse. I heard a tap, tap, tapping noise and looked around since I assumed I was all alone. There tapping away to the music was my biggest heritage turkey. As the beat of the music changed, he'd increase or decrease his tapping. I just stopped working to watch him. He always dances for his turkey ladies, but that is a very elaborate dance. For my music, he was just toe tapping. I guess my music is not as interesting as his ladies."


Newsletter prepared by: Jutta Mason

Illustrations: Jane LowBeer

Web sites: Aseel Al Najim,

Park phone: 416 392-0913

Park web site:


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