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posted September 17 2006

David and Goliath: Take Two

In the first edition of this September newsletter I wrote about the fable of David and Goliath in a Dufferin Grove Park version of little versus BIG. The role of small fellow in this fable was played by Georgie Donais. To go back: last year Georgie asked the Parks staff if they might bring in some sand, gravel, later a plumber and an electrician. She went to a local construction company and begged some clay, bought some tarps, and asked park users if they’d like to build a very old-style wall around the public health sinks that were needed for the summer food cart.

It turned out that lots of people, little and big, wanted to learn how to build using the ancient adobe method called “cob.” As the wall rose, little by little, built by so many hands of so many different sizes, the wall became a story magnet too. It seems that there’s hardly any culture that doesn’t have such buildings. People brought their photo albums from home, showing buildings in Yemen that are seven hundred years old and still inhabited, round adobe buildings in North Africa, thick-walled cob houses with thatched roofs in English villages. What a lot of joyful community talk and action!

Georgie digging clay

So the cob courtyard was built. At the end of September the “cob party” for people who helped was huge. The cob courtyard has become a familiar, loved (and useful) landmark in the park.

This year Georgie sought and obtained outside funding to add the one small thing that was still missing: a toilet in the playground. Parents and caregivers have asked, every year, for a nearby toilet, since the current playground went in (in the eighties). But a plumbed toilet would cost $100,000 or more and there is no such City money allocated for this park. So Georgie planned out a composting toilet (more environment-friendly anyway), with a beautiful community-built cob surround.

The role of big fellow in our fable here was taken by the Big City Bureaucracy. There was a side player: a neighbourhood resident passionately opposed to the project, and diligent at sending letters and e-mails to the people on top. So the project was repeatedly stalled, a big fence was put up, policy orders were given that made the project impossible. City Councillor Giambrone called a meeting.

In the original fable, David knocks out Goliath with a slingshot. But at the park meeting nobody got knocked out. Even if the complainant had come, she wouldn’t have been knocked out – but she didn’t turn up, anyway. However there was a very intense discussion, in a packed rink house. Popular democracy is alive and well!

The many “Davids” at the meeting (including some eloquent children) made their arguments in favour of community good sense instead of one-size-fits-all corporate risk management. There were a lot of points made, and the representatives of the “Goliath” of City management listened very carefully.

Since when does Goliath listen? But in our fable that’s what happened. By the next morning, the Parks management had worked out the remaining blocks to the composting toilet project, with encouragement from the councillor. Georgie was able to confer directly with well-known architect Martin Liefhebber, whom parks management had hired to help the project get official certification. He told Georgie that her plans are sound. And Parks supervisor Peter Leiss told Georgie that once the foundation hole is level, the sculptural cob surround part will revert to being a community art project (funding comes from the Toronto Arts Council). That means the fence can come down and kids can help build.

kids can build with clay

Before the meeting, at the end of the first version of this newsletter editorial, I wrote: The nicest outcome would be if the “Davids” of the bureaucracy (those exist too) and the “Davids” of the community could work together to support the gifts that Georgie brings to the park. Then next year it would be safe to step behind the playground trees again (i.e., the current frequently-used “toilets”), and parents and caregivers could relax when their little ones say, for the third time in an hour: “Daddy, I need to pee!”

Well, that’s what happened. In everyday life, people don’t live happily ever after, as they might in fables. But sometimes things work out a lot better than one expects.

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