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Dufferin Grove Park Final Newsletter, August 2017

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August 2017

The final issue

Ed: or so I thought. But now (2018) there have been new developments

This newsletter is put out by CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space. Since 2000, when this little organization began at Dufferin Grove Park, we’ve been doing what we call “theoretical and practical research” citywide and beyond, into what makes public spaces – like parks – more hospitable and more lively. We’ve been researching what works and what doesn’t, and we’ve documented a lot of what we’ve seen and done, in the seventeen years of this newsletter and on our websites. This issue of the newsletter is the final one, but the websites continue.

Dufferin Grove Park: a little history

Dufferin Grove Park was established by the City of Toronto in 1901, with land lots assembled through a tax sale. The park went up and down in acreage – up to 11 acres in 1912, down to 8 in 1925, back up to 12 in 1945. Until 1973, Gladstone Avenue ran right through the park, but then the street was closed and sodded over. Now the park is 14 acres, or 6 hectares.

Dufferin Park Racetrack

By 1945 there were 15 tennis courts (8 clay and 7 grass), a hockey cushion and a skating rink (natural ice), and lots of flowerbeds – the park was known for the excellence of its horticulture. Abe Orpen, the owner of the Dufferin Racetrack across the street (where the mall is now) donated funds to build the wading pool in 1954. The natural ice rink was changed to a mechanically-cooled ice rink in 1955.

The new rink was well-used. From the Toronto Star: On Sunday Dec.11, 1955, 800 people came to skate at Dufferin Rink. The rink is a good place to go for people who liked being jammed in like sardines. There was a charge for skating – 15 cents for kids, 25 cents for adults. The city archives mention a request to put a food concession in the rink, but that request was denied.

An old map shows a fountain and many trees where the soccer field is now. A long-time resident says that the trees and fountain were taken out after 1957, when the race track was sold and its centre green could no longer be used as a sports field in between races.

Former Ward 18 recreation supervisor Tino DeCastro says that when he started working at Dufferin Grove as his first summer job in the early 1980’s, the park was often filled with kids and families. The playground had five staff, two of them “play leaders” who did games and crafts and outings with the children. These kinds of programs ran in many city parks from the middle of May until September, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Even tiny parkettes had play staff. Playgrounds competed with one another in soccer and baseball meets. The park field houses became neighbourhood clubhouses.

Toward the end of the 1980’s, this development began to fade. Children gradually disappeared off the streets and out of the playgrounds as their parents felt the need to place them in closely supervised camps during holidays. Dufferin Grove Park had three teenage staff at the wading pool, but both the pool and the playground were often pretty empty.

What happened next:

In 1993 an old-fashioned sandpit play area was proposed for Dufferin Grove, and a few artists were funded to do playground activities with the kids (with a donation from Dufferin Mall, which also funded the building of the basketball court). Some of the immediate park neighbours were not happy about the sand pit, and they stood in front of the bulldozer to block it when it came to dig. They said they didn’t want more noisy activity in the playground, and they feared the sandpit would attract drug dealers. But the very hands-on Recreation director at the time, Mario Zanetti, came to the park himself, to make a pitch.

He got up on a picnic table in front of the crowd and asked the opposition to give the sand play area a chance. One by one, parents from the neighbourhood came forward to the picnic table and spoke in support of his request. Those in opposition withdrew, and the “Big Backyard” adventure playground, as it was called, got its start, with arts and food and extra support for the families who came back to using the playground.

In the years that followed, other things were gradually added: the park ovens, the gardens and tree-planting, the rink kitchens and skate lending, the music and theatre performances, the farmers’ market, the Friday night suppers, the cob café and the campfire areas. There was no “master plan” – new things came along as the occasions arose and permission was granted. Some extra staff were hired, although only part-time, and money from the expanding food programs became available for trying new ideas. The park staff became skilled at supporting community suggestions and the park users supported the staff in return.

During the 15 years of the staff-community partnership, Dufferin Grove Park gradually grew into a community “commons.” There were many days when hundreds of people were in the park... talking – to their friends, their lover, their neighbor, their political antagonist, the family they just met in the playground; walking – along the centre path, past the food gardens, or down by the native species plantings; eating – a spicy park soup in winter, a pizza they made at the bake oven, a campfire picnic with their friends, a three course meal at Friday Night Supper, a giant pot of curry at a Sri Lankan 'overball' tournament; playing – basketball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, bicycle polo, volleyball, chess, checkers, skateboarding; building – a children’s dam or a tipi in the sandpit, a new park bench, a compost bin, a bean trellis, a “bee condo” for the wildflower garden, a cob café and outdoor picnic station for the playground; making music – guitar at the campfire, drums down in the hollow, xylophone inside the rink house with a choir, trumpets in the middle of the soccer field by torchlight with a thousand eyes on them during the annual “Night of Dread,” DJ sampling by the basketball guys filming a music video; doing theatre and dance – Clay and Paper Theatre, the Cooking Fire Theatre Festival, the Day of Delight, Dusk Dances, Scottish Country Dancing, line dancing for the neighborhood fair, the annual pow wow circle dance; baking – in the bake ovens, in the new tandoor, in the coals of a park campfire, in the donated stove of the zamboni café; skating – Tibetan teens playing shinny hockey, Friday night dates, the old guys’ shinny league under a full moon…...and that’s just a rough sketch. The park gradually became a community centre, but one without walls, for a fraction of the cost of building and running a regular community centre.

Meantime, down at City Hall….

Until around 2008 the events at Dufferin Grove Park were not high on the radar of city management staff, who were very focused on the government restructuring that came about because of the city’s forced amalgamation in 1998. There was a decade of struggle and staff turnover at city hall. The first parks commissioner of the amalgamated city was Joe Halstead, a civil servant and golfing friend of then-Mayor Mel Lastman. After a few years Mr.Halstead was replaced by Claire Tucker-Reid, a civil servant from Etobicoke, whose title was changed to general manager – the city having adopted a business-sounding model, with park users now called “customers.”

But Ms.Tucker-Reid had to take stress leave several times and eventually she took early retirement, formed a parks consulting company, and was replaced by Brenda Libretz. Ms.Librecz was a friendly and approachable person, but she also had to take stress leave, once reportedly being taken out of city hall by ambulance. After a few years, she left to become commissioner of fire services in Markham, a position she still holds.

She was replaced by Brenda Patterson, a long-time Children’s Services (city daycare) director who lived in Pickering. By then the city’s new administrative structure was finally in place, and Ms.Patterson turned her attention to the idea of “harmonizing” parks and recreation programs, to make them equal everywhere, for fairness and efficiency. Ms.Patterson seems to have felt that this could only be done if there was ironclad central administration. Management staff who were perceived as mavericks (ed.: I’m just guessing here – everything was done behind closed doors) were transferred – including our long-time Ward 18/Dufferin Grove recreation supervisor Tino DeCastro – or were occasionally fired. The story went around that the Parks director at the time, Paul Ronan, was invited to an apparently routine working lunch with Ms.Patterson, and when he arrived at her office, Security staff escorted him out of the building, permanently. The reason was never made public. The job was temporarily filled by transferring Andy Koropeski from Transportation, but he only stayed a year. (He is now the interim president of the Toronto Parking Authority; Paul Ronan is now the head of the Ontario Parks Association.)

The Recreation director, Malcolm Bromley, left to head Parks and Rec in Vancouver instead of staying at city hall. His predecessor, Don Boyle, had decamped to Haldimand County a few years before, to be their Chief Administrative Officer. Did he regard the indigenous land claim disputes of Caledonia County, part of his new administrative task, as less stressful than working as the City of Toronto’s recreation director?

In 2011, Ms. Patterson’s business style helped her be promoted to deputy city manager (responsible for other divisions in addition to her now-transformed Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Division). Her place as general manager was taken by Jim Hart, transferred over from Municipal Licensing and Standards. (As general manager, Mr.Hart was so moved by the proposal to put a Korean-style reflexology footpath into Dufferin Grove Park in memory of cyclist Jenna Morrison, that he found almost $100,000 in his budget at a time of budget cutbacks, to help pay for the modernist design of the path.) But only two years after his appointment, Mr.Hart took early retirement as well. Recreation director Janie Romoff, a long-time sports-oriented civil servant, took over his job. Meantime, Brenda Patterson left the city bureaucracy after a short time as deputy city manager.

No one outside city hall can know how this shuffle will continue from here, since all those kinds of changes are settled behind closed doors. What we can see more clearly, though, is how management deliberations at city hall affected the grass roots – for example Dufferin Grove Park – once the policy of “harmonization” began to seep down.

It became clear that the park was seen as a tangle of problems that needed to be fixed.

Putting out fires

There had already been various attempts to bring the park under control case by case, on the “putting out fires wherever they erupt” principle. But this often didn’t work out as planned. Two examples: stairs and campfires.

The case of the rink stairs:

fenced-off stairs

Leading up to the front door of Dufferin Rink from the sidewalk, there is a 20-foot slanted concrete walkway, and in winter when the incline gets slippery, people entering or leaving the rink sometimes lose their footing and fall. The Parks crew put in a shorter, but even steeper, interlock path, but then rink users were told that there was no more money to fix the problem. Then a few rink friends thought they had a solution. They went to Home Depot and bought a set of three wide premade steps for $50, and the program staff helped them to install the little stairway over the earth of a sloped garden bed adjacent to the sidewalk, adding a fourth step of embedded bricks to bring the new stairway to the level of the entryway. The moment the steps were in place, everybody used them instead of the slippery incline. But then a few days later, the city barricaded the steps with danger tape. It turned out that the steps were not all exactly the same height, which might cause someone to trip. There was a worry that the unauthorized installation of the steps would bring a fall and a lawsuit. The rink friends were told to remove the steps immediately and go back to the former slippery entryway.

This did not play well, and there were protests by rink users. So city technical staff came and measured and deliberated both onsite and offsite. The plan they arrived at was to take out a large area of concrete, build a retaining wall and then add some steps that would be “up to code. “ But this would cost many thousands of dollars, and there was no money in the budget.

Then one of the rink program staff looked at the problem from another side. If a simple door was put into the chain link fence on the rink side (i.e. to the back door) of the rink house, where the ground was much closer to level, no one would have to use the front entry when the walkway was icy. The technical services staff agreed, they put in two concrete steps and a chain-link door, and the back door has been the main entry for rink users ever since. Cost: $500.

Even so, the unorthodox way the solution came from rink users and rink program staff putting their heads together did not seem to be appreciated. Example: Parks manager Sandy Straw had promised every year that her staff would install some stairs on a rocky hillside near the rink house, to connect the two sections of the farmers’ market. That project was cancelled.

The case of the campfires:

A different year, when new Park maintenance supervisor Peter Leiss was assigned to Ward 18, one of his first actions was to cancel the community campfires. He had formerly worked in Etobicoke, and he said that since park campfires were not allowed in Etobicoke there should be none in more centrally-located parks either.

By then there had been well over 1000 campfires at Dufferin Grove, over more than ten years. The program was very well liked, and the supervisor’s decision caused an outpouring of protests to the city councillor. Instead of abolishing the campfires, city management reinstated them at Dufferin Grove and then undertook to make a citywide campfire policy – harmonization working in the other direction. It took years of reports and meetings to craft the policy, though, and having a park campfire continues to be a complicated process citywide.

Time to get serious about “fixing” Dufferin Grove Park:

As long as the Dufferin Grove program staff continued to work in the way they had developed together with park users, numerous efforts by management to ‘harmonize’ Dufferin Grove (in addition to the two examples here) did not get the desired results. So sterner measures were applied.

In May 2011, city recreation manager Kelvin Seow prepared an internal “Briefing Note” about Dufferin Grove. Neither the park’s onsite staff nor the public were allowed to see this memo, until CELOS applied to get it through Freedom of Information. When the envelope arrived, we read that if the collaboration between the frontline city park staff and park users, including the CELOS people, were to continue, “the City will be non-compliant on many approved policies, procedures, and legislative requirements… ...vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” The memo said it was time to get serious about avoiding these risks.

The big fix began with an edict that the wading pool staff would now focus solely on monitoring wading pool water quality and watching for risky behaviour. No other skills were required of them and they were no longer to take turns working at the other park programs.

former staff, all gone

That was a major change for the park. Then all the tasks at Dufferin Grove Park were reshuffled into separate jobs – little separate silos. The staff had always taken turns doing everything – running the wading pool in summer and the rink in winter, preparing food for the cafe, cooking and serving at the weekly community suppers, fixing broken slats on the park benches, scheduling summer camp pizza visits, setting up for the Thursday farmers’ market, working with the garden volunteers, keeping the sandpit safe and fun...on and on. The variety of park program tasks and the way the activities built on one another was one reason why the park attracted such a range of interesting and capable part-time workers over the years. The work was hard but seldom boring. But now the staff who had built the park into what it was, slowly began to be replaced. The new staff group was much larger, to accommodate the new separated job descriptions, and the phrase “it’s not my job” (which had not been heard for many years) made its comeback.

Stamping out “conflict of interest.”

The earlier program staff got in trouble for their long-established relationships with park friends, and with CELOS. Those relations were now termed a “conflict of interest.”

“We need to go back,” a new supervisor wrote in an e-mail to CELOS, “to the core activities that parks and recreation has traditionally run. We need to dissect out the traditional services of the Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division from programs that represent anomalies for PFR.” But then the supervisor ran into a problem.

What are the ‘traditional activities’ in Toronto’s parks and playgrounds?

The fact is that most of the traditional activities in Toronto’s playgrounds were stopped years ago. In-house sports leagues and athletic meets, staff-run festivals and folk dancing competitions, pick-up football games or storytelling sessions organized by the park play leaders: no longer part of the city's “approved organizational standards.” (In fact, no parks outside of Ward 18 have playground staff anymore.) Over time, management had itself eliminated most of the traditional staff-run activities in Toronto parks and playgrounds.

That meant that PFR’s mission as interpreted by the park’s new supervisor was a conundrum for her (and for the following three supervisors who took turns trying to make it work after she was moved). They couldn’t turn the park staff away from the “anomalies” of Dufferin Grove Park as a commons, back to traditional playground activities, since those activities were mostly gone.

Ward 18 City Councillor Ana Bailao had promised that none of the popular activities at the park would be lost. And so the supervisors tried making a kind of hybrid: putting the city’s hierarchical template overtop of the commons that had grown up at Dufferin Grove over 18 years.

Report: how’s it working?

1. Book-keeping: The park’s program staff are no longer allowed to do the park book-keeping directly. Recreation manager Sue Bartleman said at a recent public meeting that one good thing about central management taking back the running of the park is that "now we know where the money goes." Entering all those numbers into the city’s central system was assumed to be more reliable than the Quickbooks program formerly used by staff. But in fact the city’s book-keeping seems a bit of a shambles. This is a shame, since in the last 6 years the city paid more that $70 million for a complex new financial reporting system called FPARS (purchased from the multinational software corporation SAP SE). The individual elements of Dufferin Grove’s income-and-expenditure reporting in this system (obtained through Freedom of Information) almost never match up.

2. Cost of running the park: Freedom of Information requests show an increased operating cost of almost 40% over four years between 2010 and 2014. In 2014 it appeared that the net operating cost was close to $750,000, up from about $550,000 in 2010. That seemed like a huge leap, and we sent our math to both the Parks supervisor Lennox Morgan and the Recreation manager Sue Bartleman, asking if they could point out what we might have misunderstood. But neither of them answered.

3. Income from the food programs: The city’s “SAP” report shows that the food income is down while food expenses are going up. This graph shows that in the last year of the staff/CELOS partnership, after the groceries to make all the park food were paid for, there was $95,300 left over to pay the cooks (report from the Quickbooks accounting system). The next year city management centralized food purchasing and took over the food-related programs. The city auditor had warned that the more centralized food purchasing is, the more it costs. And indeed, the groceries cost went way up. In 2015 the groceries/food supplies for Dufferin Grove cost almost as much as the income from food sales, and in 2016 the supplies actually cost more than the income from selling the food. That means there was nothing left over to pay the cooks who had prepared the food.

The cooking-staff wages are paid, of course – but through the operating budget, which is paid for by taxes. So in a neighbourhood where most house prices begin at $1 million, Dufferin Grove Park food is now significantly subsidized. Not a viable “business plan” over the long term!

Of course, it could be that we’ve misunderstood the city’s reporting (again obtained through Freedom of Information). We sent our numbers to the finance manager, asking for corrections, if any. But she didn’t answer.

4. Staff work: It’s a siloed and cumbersome hierarchy, with supervision continuing to be top-down and off-site from the park. The locks on the clubhouse were recently changed and now most staff are not allowed to have a key.

4. Programs in the park:

(a) the wading pool:

- Pool staff are disconnected from the rest of the park.

- The pool got much less use after public health targeted wading pools citywide for increased chlorine and water emptying, leading to ice-cold chlorine-strong pools with many off-limits times while new risk-protocols were being carried out.

- Happily, the wading pool rules have relaxed slightly.

- The wading pool staff, while clearly suffering from boredom, are friendly. Some have unofficially taken on the task of turning on the sandpit water and unlocking the shovels in the morning, although the sandpit is explicitly not part of their job.

- At a recent visit from a public health inspector, though, she said they should be adding even more chlorine.

- When the pool was renovated in 2009 for $227,000, the plan was to tear up the old concrete and replace it with new concrete. However, Forestry warned that the shade trees surrounding the pool would likely be damaged and die.

- So the city tried putting a new coating on top of the existing wading pool concrete. This turns out to be very slippery. Also some of the coating began peeling off after a few years.

- Parks manager Peter White promised that the slippery coating would be removed (the old concrete surface is fine) in 2017, but this has not happened yet.

(b) the rink:

- The social space of the rink suffers from the silo approach of staffing, with too much emphasis on selling food and scheduling staff breaks, not enough attention to making a welcoming rink.

- the level of rink ice making, however, is better than it’s ever been.

- the city’s “Northwest Corner” project may involve rebuilding the rink house (see p.11)

(c) the playground:

- The park has one of the few Toronto playgrounds that was not torn out in the big ‘playground safety’ purge that began in 2000. Most of the Dufferin Grove structures were installed in 1984, although the popular “spider” climber is from a yet older generation of playground structures, manufactured in Paris, Ontario.

- A 2006 proposal to replace the playground with newer plastic equipment brought so much local opposition that it was cancelled.

- The proposal will probably resurface, since the city is buying millions of dollars of new structures from the international playground manufacturing industry.

- Any digging to anchor new structures will put the many shade trees in danger, but happily, the solid older equipment has so far lasted well – a bit like older fridges and older cars.

(d) The sandpit/adventure playground:

- Added to the park in 1993, at a cost of $4000, the sandpit/adventure playground continues to be the main draw for many families, summer camps, and school groups.

- Sadly, few of the current park staff enjoy working at this program. No staff are directed to work at the sandpit/adventure playground except on weekends. That means that if the staff are asked for help there, the answer tends to be “not my job.”

- Still, the new Ward 18 recreation supervisor, Keith Storey, bought lots more shovels, so the kids don’t need to fight over them.

- In all these years, there has never been a serious injury in the sandpit, even when there are long periods without attention from staff.

- Its popularity has become a problem for the kids who are eager to try their engineering skills. On a recent warm day in July, the park had 3 day-camp buses from Newmarket, two groups from East York enrichment centres, a University of Toronto summer camp, and – at the campfire – a group from the High Park children’s garden camp. Not all could get a turn playing in the sandpit.

- If the day ever comes when the city decides to put in a few more such sand play areas, with water and good shovels, at some other parks, that would reduce the crowding here.

- Who will take up that idea?

(e) the campfires:

- This program has been running since about 1995. At the peak there were over 600 campfires a year. That’s too many for one park. People come from right across the city.

- Happily, the city has resumed allowing campfires in other parks and has even been installing campfire circles. If the citywide permit process is made less complicated in future, it will take the pressure off Dufferin Grove.

(f) the cob courtyard café:

- This clay/sand/straw/water structure was built with the help of over 500 pairs of community hands during one long hot summer in 2005. Since public health required working sinks and electricity at the playground “food cart,” City trades staff did the plumbing and wiring.

- The structure is still solid after 12 seasons of snow and rain, although the city had to replace the wooden counter, and the shingles are vandalized from time to time.

- The café is the site of the city’s summer snack bar operation. At one time it was also the site of much socializing and introducing of new park friends, by staff who were working at the counter. Now, not so much. It’s more like a MacDonald’s (“can I help the next person?”) but with a supply problem. It runs for only a fraction of the time when there are people at the playground.

However, as many caregivers know, a bowl of mac and cheese and a park cookie at the right moment can work wonders for busy but hungry children – it’s better than nothing.

- The economics don’t work anymore, though – these days the café does not nearly cover its costs (see p.7)

(g) the park’s wood-fired ovens:

- The bigger oven, built in 1995, was the first such park oven in the city. The second one was built in 2000.

- Park staff use them to bake bread to sell at the farmers’ market, run “pizza days” for camps, school groups and families, and, since 2003, cook Friday Night Supper.

- The ovens work well but the costs don’t – food activities no longer cover their costs (p.7).

- City management has declined to do basic upkeep of the ovens, perhaps because of the plan to replace them as part of the “Northwest Corner” project (see p.11)

(h) the gardens:

- At the peak, there were fourteen different community-planted gardens in the park. Now there are less, but still far too many for the available volunteers. Some program staff have shifts scheduled to work in the gardens, but not enough to maintain them all.

- some of the gardens were fenced in to protect young volunteer-planted trees, during the 1990’s, when the city was not planting many trees in the park. Those trees are now strong and tall and the fences should be removed and the weeds cut, to let the grass grow back.

(i) the farmers’ market:

The market began in November 2003, and has been managed by Anne Freeman since early 2004. It’s doing fine, and is not a city project, although some city staff are assigned to help on Thursdays. The market snack bar run by city staff brings in more income than most of the other park food operations. If there is prolonged construction (p.11), that will affect the market.

(j) the summertime rink pads: Both are busy with skaters on one side and bike polo on the other. Both groups take care of their own equipment and only need storage for the winter. Very successful. The skaters are concerned about losing the use of the pads during construction, and maybe afterwards if the pleasure-skating pad is removed in favour of a skating trail.

The northwest corner project

In early 2015, the capital projects section of Parks and Recreation hired a design firm called Bortoletto to create a “Feasibility Study” for renovating or replacing the rink house, the ovens, and the food gardens in the northwest corner of the park. In November 2016, Ward 18 City Councillor Ana Bailao invited people in the neighborhood to a public meeting about a new capital projects initiative called the Northwest Corner and Clubhouse Improvement Project. The city hired the LURA Consulting Group (which according to its website specializes in “both market-based solutions and community-based behaviour change mechanisms”) to put together a “Community Resource Group” to give local input. This neighborhood group has now met twice, and the city has put out a request for proposals (RFP) to firms that want to bid on the contract to do the renovation. The city seems to have considered a budget of $250,000 originally, but the estimate from Bortoletto for renovating (including replacing the ovens) comes to over $500,000. Rebuilding would cost much more.

The only reason we can think of, for making a fancier building at Dufferin Grove, is that so many people come to skate here, and eat, and play, and have a campfire, and meet their friends. It’s become a destination park. But here’s the irony: many of the programs at Dufferin Grove are gradually unravelling. By the time a designer building is done, the park may be waning as a popular destination. Should somebody warn Capital Projects not to waste their money?

Editorial: the next wave

On August 14 – one of the days when I was working on this newsletter – I was biking through the park when I came across many small clusters of people, most but not all fairly young, in the centre of the park. Some were listening to a brass band, some were folk dancing, some picnicking, others playing games. I asked – what’s the occasion? It turned out they were celebrating the 14th anniversary of the big Blackout. After a while, a samba band unloaded their drums from cars parked near St.Mary’s High School, and a parade of a few hundred people formed, with fire twirlers and lit-up bicycles and three costumed women on tall stilts. They went along some nearby streets and back again, down to the hollow by Dufferin Street, and then gradually dispersed.

There was no thought of a permit, and most people had just heard via social media that something was happening. They clearly felt that parks belong to people, and that they needed no permission to enjoy themselves. Will this next wave make the complex, costly parks bureaucracy that I’ve described in this final newsletter irrelevant?

We’ll see.

Editor: Jutta Mason

Illustrations: Jane LowBeer

Websites (for more information):,,,,

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