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Turf struggles at Dufferin Rink

An excerpts from a broader history of Toronto's outdoor rinks, by Jutta Mason.

In the fall of 1993 I asked the park kids if they were looking forward to skating at the rink in winter. Quite a few of the summer park kids, tough as they were, said that they wouldn’t go there, that the rink is a scary place. I asked them what was the most scary thing about it, and the kids said “the rink staff.” That puzzled me. When it came time to re-open the new rink, I decided to find out for myself. That winter I spent quite a few hours every week just sitting on a bench in the entryway (I don’t skate), chatting with people who came to skate, and with the rink staff. People quickly got used to me and paid little attention.

It was a world of mostly male teenagers, rink guard staff included, and there was lots of rough language and bullying. The staff office had a big sealed internal window, through which you could see a beaten-up old metal desk, a few old office chairs and a couple of wooden storage boxes for rink guard vests and cleaning supplies. That office was a little clubhouse for the rink guards and their friends.

Much of the time the rink guards were either sitting in the office, along with the ice resurfacer drivers, or out on the ice playing shinny hockey. When girls came to skate, there were sometimes raids between change rooms (girls and boys had separate, walled-off skate-changing areas, even though no one actually changed more than their footwear). Shoes were taken as trophies. It must have been fun for the kids who liked the screaming and the play-fighting involved, but for people coming in the front door, the impression could be pretty wild. Meanwhile, out on the ice, older teenagers dominated, and fights were not infrequent. Families seemed to avoid the place. Even though the rink building was new, the fact that there were no eye-level windows gave the place a prison-architecture look.

I talked to the rink users and the staff, and to the people in the neighbourhood who had used the Big Back Yard in the summer, about maybe having an official rink re-opening party, with food and music. Nobody objected. So I went around to some of the local ethnic food take-out places along Bloor Street – maybe they’d like to offer people a taste of their food at the rink party, to increase their customers?

Asking strangers to cook for the rink party took a bit more nerve than I could comfortably muster. But the owners of the little convenience stores who also made samosas or vine-leaf rolls didn’t seem surprised. A community party back home – a block-o, a goat roast, a plov – would always be centered around food, why not a rink re-opening celebration at the park? Seven vendors agreed to come, and musicians from the summer Big Back Yard program said they were happy to play some music. The tricky part was gaining the cooperation of the rink staff. They said they’d help, but as the date approached, they didn’t show up for either of two planning meetings. A large, colourful poster inviting rink user participation turned up in the garbage bin the day after we put it up. One of the ice resurfacer drivers told me that the rink guards had thrown it out. I uncrumpled it and taped it back on the wall. Some of the rink guards complained about the party, not addressing me to my face but in loud voices meant to be overheard. Having strange kinds of food and music and stilt walkers and other sissy stuff at their rink – stupid!!

We had to postpone the rink party twice. Finally, three of us went to talk to the rink supervisor. Still no results, so we went up a level, to the district manager. There was only one possible date left: the last day before the rink was set to close for the season. Better than nothing. Posters went up in the neighbourhood, and the Parks Commissioner was invited to come out and cut the ribbon.

On the morning of the party, the rink staff locked the front doors and put up a sign: rink closed to the public, for official opening ceremony. We called the supervisor. He said, “oh, we thought that’s what you wanted, keep people off so the ice will be nice and smooth!” But we took down the “closed” sign and the staff unlocked the doors and let people skate. Tables were set up in the garage for the food vendors. The rink staff, finally with a good grace, built a campfire outside and surrounded it with bales of straw for the skaters to sit on. The musicians played in the entry hall. Skaters came, many more than I’d expected, whole families, who hadn’t used the rink all season. The Big Back Yard circus teacher stood outside the front door on stilts, eating fire. A local figure-skating prodigy, ten years old, gave a short performance, with music playing on a borrowed city sound system. She took only one fall in a series of pretty good jumps. The food tables were surrounded by eager eaters, and the vendors looked gratified as the compliments flowed.

For me, the best moment came near the end. A group of the kids who normally yelled and cursed and fought with each other were talking outside by the rink pad. Their faces looked friendlier and more relaxed than I’d seen them all season. One of them said: “our rink is the best, everybody wants to come here” and the others nodded. That’s when I first learned that a world run not only by teenagers is more fun for them too.

 *		*		*		*		*

But things didn’t stay mellow. The following season, the shoe raids were back, and so was the fighting, the bullying, and the rink guards hanging around inside their sealed office. Their supervisor didn’t seem to think there was a problem. The ice was sometimes pretty bumpy, depending on which rink operator was operating the ice resurfacer. The rule was (the rink operators told me) that the ice only had to be scraped and flooded twice a shift (requiring one to two hours of work in an eight-hour shift). The rest of the time they sat and chatted with the rink guards, or read the racing pages of their paper.

I asked Mario Zanetti, the Recreation director, how such low work standards could continue. He said that since most certified ice resurfacing staff were seasonal labourers, the City had to take whoever it could get.

We asked the supervisor if we could try some rink-side campfires, and he said he didn’t care, but that it probably wouldn’t work. On the first Sunday in January a few of the summer park kids helped to set up some benches beside the rink gates, laid out some rubber mats, and we made a cooking fire. We cooked chicken soup, French fries, and apple fritters. It was cold, standing out there for four hours, but the fire was beautiful, and we repeated the campfires on the following “family Sundays.” Gradually families started coming back to the rink on Sundays. People talked around the fire even if they didn’t know each other.

The rink guards ignored us, so with our “Safe City” prize money we hired a couple of "Latinos Americanos" gang members whom we knew from Christie Pits, to help tend the fire when the park kids got tired of it. The “L.A.’s,” as they called themselves, were good workers, chopping wood with relish, stirring the pan, and making sure nobody fell in the fire. But if they were hung over, or unexpectedly spending the night in jail, I was on my own, with only grudging help from the rink staff to even help set up the benches. One Sunday in February I found the fire extinguisher missing from the campfire shed, and in its place a nasty note from a visiting city inspector, saying that we’d better keep our hands off city equipment. The rink supervisor seemed a bit embarrassed, and he bought us another extinguisher at the mall. But the next Sunday was one of those hung-over days for the L.A. support staff, and nobody showed up to help. I asked two of the rink staff to just bring over a bench and a bucket of water for me. They grinned and said, no, that’s not our job.

That was the end for me. I packed up the jug of oil and the potatoes and the pot and the paper towels and the utensils and the oven mitts and told the families on the rink that there would be no more cooking fires that season. The next morning, I called the recreation director and told him I couldn’t stand it any more. The teenage staff were deadbeats and their supervisor didn’t care – could the director move the rink into a different supervisor’s jurisdiction?

The recreation director said – all right. He assigned Tino DeCastro, stationed at Christie Pits, to supervise Dufferin Rink next season, using different rink guards.

When they found out, the outgoing rink guards asked me: "how could you do this to us? That rink has always been ours." I said, "it’s not yours. It belongs to the neighbourhood. How could you think there would be no consequences to how you ran things into the ground?"

Because that’s what can happen in a world run by kids. We resolved to work toward re-establishing a mix of generations among front-line park staff, and for the first ten years, we got support for that project, from the supervisor right up to the City Recreation Director.

        *      *       *      *      *      *      *

One of the first things Tino did was agree to hire some female rink staff, to balance the mostly-male culture that might be discouraging more girls from coming. He asked park friends if they had any recommendations, and we did. The first female rink guard, Meran Currie-Roberts, was a friendly, capable music student at the University of Toronto, already involved in the park’s summer programs. She was enthusiastic about the rink, and eager to help little kids learn to skate.

Meran was a fast learner on her new job, but on her third day of work at the rink she came across a situation she hadn’t expected to run into, and she called me at home. She told me that three boys who were probably no older than 12 or 13 had asked her to help them count some money. Meran counted $900 in $20 bills. She asked them where they got the money. One of the boys, who evidently had trouble with strategy as well as arithmetic, told her they got the money from a neighbourhood “chop shop” (auto parts dealer) for delivering a stolen car. Meran said her eyes must have widened. But before she could say anything, the boys looked at each other, quickly got up, and left the building. When she looked outside, there was no one to be seen. Meran called me because she had been told at the start of her rink guard job that the scene at the rink was sometimes “heavy.” She wanted a candid answer from me: would she be likely to encounter other kids who would be needing help counting large amounts of money?

But no one else ever made that request. Most problem behaviors were more garden-variety. We had bought a few checkers games, and some kids set the checker pieces on fire to fill the room with the smell of burning plastic. Older kids stole lunch money, or baseball caps, from the younger ones. (Everyone called it “punking off,” not stealing.) There was smoking in the washrooms and on the ice – and not only of cigarettes.

To get younger kids and families back into the rink, we resolved to have the rink guards enforce the shinny hockey schedule. Older kids would have to get off the ice and let the younger kids play unobstructed for an hour every day. There was strong resistance. Everybody had an opinion. The ice-resurfacing staff came out on the side of the older kids. If the guys have to break up a really good shinny hockey game just because it’s the younger kids’ time, where’s the fairness in that? And so, when the rink guards weren’t looking, the ice-resurfacing staff waved the older guys back onto the ice, with a wink.

The resistance heated up. Tino got flyers printed up for skaters to take home. Schedules were put up all over the rink, showing the shinny hockey ice allocation times. The rink guards passed out the flyers, and were met with disgusted looks from the older youth. Meran, being the first female staff person, became a particular symbol for the new approach at the rink. One evening she found a tow truck parked outside the rink house’s front doors. It was parked so close that it was hard to get in and out of the doors. The guys who had arrived in the truck argued with Meran about their right to park the truck anywhere they wanted. As they were talking, they “accidentally” hit Meran in the foot with a puck. Tino came down to the rink from home, and talked to the guys (whom he had known since they were little kids at the community centre) and told them to leave. But they waited at the corner until Meran’s shift had ended, and she had to call me to walk her home.

Tino brought in two more female staff, both long-time recreation workers who knew many of the youth. After they started working at the rink, people were sometimes startled, when they came in the rink house doors to go skating, to find themselves in the crossfire of a fierce shouting match between Aileen, the Portuguese no-nonsense rink guard, and some of the shinny hockey players who were refusing to follow the schedule (or to clean up their language, or to leave the rink when told to go home). Being told to “go home!” if you ignored the schedule or swore at the rink guard was something new. The youth protested that such a thing had never happened when “the rink was theirs.” They were determined to take the rink control back, and would often delay following a staff order to “leave the premises” until they could actually see the staff dialing the police number.

Or they would wait even longer, since the police often didn’t show up for a call as minor -- to the dispatcher -- as “rink users refusing to listen to city staff.” The youth taunted the rink staff, saying that the police were on their side.

I spent many evenings at the rink, talking up the reasons for giving the younger kids a chance to play without having the older kids grab the puck away or run them down. Most skaters agreed. The young guys who resisted were not a majority of the skaters, but there were enough of them that the others gave them a wide berth. Nobody wanted to get punched for defending the staff.

So Tino called the recreation director, Mario Zanetti, and asked for permission to sign a short-term contract with Intelligarde, a private security company. Mario said yes.

That brought results. The next two times when the youth told the rink staff to go to hell, for enforcing the rink schedule, Intelligarde staff arrived within fifteen minutes (their promise) and ushered the resisters out. The third time, near the end of the rink season, the youth brought some of their friends to bolster their numbers. Two Intelligarde staff came in with a mean-looking dog. The youth left, quite quickly. The rink closed the next day and we were glad to see the end of the kids.

But the first day of the next rink season, we got a surprise. Kids had been pounding on the door for days, asking when the rink would be open. Then on opening day there was a pretty big crowd, with their sticks and skates, ready to get out onto the ice. The staff started right off distributing their rink schedules, as they welcomed back familiar people. Nobody made a face. People admired the new café counter, with hot chocolate in a pot on the stove and fresh mini-pizzas just coming out of the oven.

In among all the smiling faces, there were some of the mouthy kids from the season before. Their smiles were as broad as the others. I asked them, “why are you here? You said you didn’t like this rink with all its rules and its schedules. Why don’t you go up the street to the rinks where they have no schedules and the rink guards don’t bother you?”

They said, “those rinks are dangerous. We like this one a lot better.” I said, “those rinks are dangerous because of people like you, acting bad all the time.” They grinned, taking “bad” as a compliment, but shaking their heads. “We’re different now. We’ve matured” – using the word the teachers repeated all the time at school – “ and our rink is the best.” The staff got the same story I heard. We agreed that if this was part of a movie script, it would be cut for sounding implausible.

Two of the worst trouble-makers from the year before were in jail, for unrelated reasons. With the new friendship of the converts, and the temporary disappearance of the meanest guys into the courts, Intelligarde didn’t need to come anymore.

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Content last modified on January 22, 2018, at 09:08 PM EST