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How Dufferin Grove playground got its sandpit

In the middle of April 1992 there was a wish-list meeting at the library, about the park. Four people said they would follow up – Robin Craig, who lived across the street from the park, Dawne MacFarlane from up the street, Margie Rutledge, from the Wallace-Emerson Indoor Park, and Jutta Mason (me). The idea was to get some of the things on that list into the park in time for summer.

The city staff asked us – when park users say they want more things for older children to do, what kinds of additions do they have in mind? We said – we’ve been told that a sandpit is really nice. A woman from the artist-run summer camp at Trinity-Bellwoods Park had described their sandpit to us. They put it in after they saw a sandpit at Spiral Garden, another artist-run camp, this one for disabled kids at the Hugh MacMillan kids’ rehab centre. A sandpit is just a really big sand play area, this woman said, maybe with some branches for building tipis, and some digging implements, and water nearby to keep the sand from drying out and getting dusty.

The advantage of making this the first to-do item on the wish list was that a sandpit was big, and cheap, and fast to install, and very popular with kids up to their early teens. We would need a City backhoe driver to dig out a hollow 20 feet wide, 40 feet long and 15 inches deep, and fill it with gravel for drainage, then four truckloads of sand piled overtop, then logs to surround it, and some branches and shovels for the kids to start working. There was ample space for this sand play area, right beside the wading pool.

Simple! But then the plan began to run into trouble. First, some of the neighbours whose houses backed on to the southeast part of the park were unhappy that there would be any expansion of the playground, with more noise. After the Recreation director, Mario Zanetti, himself came to the park to ask them to give the sandpit a chance, the objectors withdrew, and it seemed that the project would go ahead.

But May came and went, and the weeks ticked by into June, and still no backhoe arrived to start making the sandpit. Summer was almost here and there were no gardens, either, and no music, and no food, no more benches, and no basketball court – and no plans for any. Phone calls were not returned. The four of us learned something important. In a big city, the government might say yes, yes, yes to local ideas, but nothing might ever actually happen.

In the middle of June we realized we had to make a move to jump the gap between the park and the government. We had an inspiration. We decided to write a letter to the Mayor, June Rowlands, inviting her and the Dufferin Mall manager, David Hall, to the official opening of the new sandpit play area, now christened “The Big Back Yard.” We hoped that the connection between the Mall and the City would attract enough interest that somebody in the Mayor’s office would take notice of our request. The date we gave was July 5 – three weeks away.

It worked. The Mayor’s office said, yes, she would love to attend. She was fond of playgrounds, and also fond of corporate donations. We called the City Parks staff and told them that we hoped there would be something in place for the mayor to see when she came. All of a sudden, the sandpit project moved right up to the front of the line.

Three weeks later, the sandpit was ready. Elyse Pomeranz, a neighbourhood artist, had agreed to lead some art programs beside the sand pit. The mall said that $5000 of its donation could be spent on honoraria for people to work with kids in the park. Elyse found four other artists to help, each one with a different skill. The Parks Department said they couldn’t spare a storage shed for the art supplies, so the mall threw in another $1100 and we got a carpenter to build a park-style storage shed. Elyse painted it orange with an African pattern, and the park staff got us a city padlock for it.

Two days before the Mayor was due to come, we opened the storage shed padlock to find ten flats of bedding plants in the shed – a surprise gift from the Parks Horticulture crew. The City backhoe operator, after he was done with the sandpit excavation, had already dug us a small children’s garden (his idea), around the corner from the sandpit. So on July 5, the new play area was resplendent with its African shed, its hilled-up sandpit surrounded by giant tree trunks. The children’s garden was planted with flowers.

Just before the mayor arrived, one of those remote TV vehicles came and screwed its antenna as high as the trees. The Guatemalan cook from the indoor park, Isabel Perez, had made little tortillas with bean spread. The park kids, a pretty rough bunch normally, turned into the house-proud sandpit “staff,” politely offering the tortilla snacks to the Mall staff and the City staff and the politicians and the cameramen.

That was the formal beginning of the Dufferin Grove anomalies.

See also "Dufferin Grove Park as a neighbourhood commons, 1993 to 2015"

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