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How did Toronto come to have 52 compressor-cooled outdoor rinks, many more than there are in any other city, anywhere? It's true that Canada is a skating country. Archival winter photos of Toronto parks almost always show a skating rink, or a whole bank of rinks. A 1923 photo taken at Christie Pits shows ten different rinks, eight of them for hockey, with boards. These were natural ice rinks, made in cold weather but melting away when it got warm. Ottawa still has over 200 of such neighbourhood rinks. Montreal’s outdoor rinks have been the subject of famous paintings. Every small town had ice for skating.
So why was Toronto not satisfied with natural ice rinks? Maybe the microclimate around the city made the natural ice season shorter than in other places. A Toronto Star editorial on January 3, 1958 complained that the natural ice rinks in parks still hadn’t started up for the winter. “For all the freezing weather we get here most winters, the department might as well spare the trouble and expense, and get on with the job of multiplying the number of artificial ice rinks."
Toronto’s first compressor-cooled ice rinks were built after World War 2. By 1955, the city had six permanent “Artificial Ice Rinks” (A.I.R.’s): High Park, Earlscourt, Alexandra Park, Greenwood, Eglinton, and Dufferin. There were also four “portable” A.I.R.’s , presumably rinks whose entire machinery was dismantled seasonally: Rosedale, Ramsden, Queen Alexandra School, and Kew. Dufferin and Earslcourt rinks were new that year, and very popular. On one sample Sunday, Dec.11 1955, attendance at Dufferin Rink was 800 people. At High Park, there were 962 skaters, at Eglinton 958, and at Earlscourt 861.
There was a request to city council that year, to allow food concessions at Dufferin and Earlscourt rinks, but permission was declined, without explanation – showing that the City government suffered from a lack of imagination and enterprise back then too.
For at least thirty winters after the first outdoor compressor-cooled outdoor rinks were built, Toronto operated a parallel system, with both natural and compressor-cooled outdoor rinks, all well-used. In 1958, the Star ran a rink editorial entitled "If Sardines Skated They'd Choose Toronto”: “…..Skating is not much fun when people have to wait in line outside for half an hour or more, and then go on an intolerably crowded ice surface.” That year the Parks Department operated 58 natural ice rinks for skating and 23 for hockey, in addition to the ten outdoor compressor-cooled rinks.
But city staff had trouble every year getting the natural rinks going, waiting for the weather to freeze up. So the city added more compressor-cooled rinks. There was anxiety about this – the Globe warned in a 1958 editorial that 8 of the 10 Toronto compressor-cooled rinks would need $525,000 in improvements because they were "not properly constructed." An alderman said in a speech that the cost of improving the existing rinks would be so great that there would be no money to build new ones. But they must have found the money somehow. Did the aldermen vie with one another to get outdoor compressor rinks into their ward, as a vanity project? By 1963, there were 13 such rinks. By 1978, the central part of the city (pre-amalgamation Toronto) had 21 such rinks, Etobicoke had 19 (some of them built as centennial projects in 1967), and North York had nine. (Scarborough stayed with natural ice rinks only, except for one compressor-cooled rink in its town square). Toronto boasted that it was a “pioneer” in building so many neighbourhood compressor-cooled outdoor ice rinks, with long open hours. According to the city archives, in 1978, "with the exception of City Hall rink, which commences operation on the last Saturday of October and carries on until April, the artificial ice rinks are operated from November 15 until the first Sunday in March." Hours were 9 a.m. to 10.30 p.m., except 10 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. Sundays.
So Toronto seems to have started off gradually with a few mechanically-cooled rinks, which were so popular that there was a kind of snowball effect, leading the city to become the outdoor compressor-rink champion. But a wealth of rinks has its down-side. With so many rinks to look after, there was constant difficulty in operating them.
Finding good staff to run the rinks well for four months a year was a special problem from the beginning. Back in 1963, Parks Commissioner George Bell wrote a memo criticizing the Ministry of Labour for issuing refrigeration certificates to unqualified workers. “During the four month period of operation the Department had a turn-over of approximately 81 men to operate thirteen rinks. 29 of these left before the completion of the season, 11 of whom were discharged for various misdemeanors..…In general the certificated men who are hired for seasonal employment…are poorly qualified for the operation of refrigeration equipment and irresponsible. Their misbehaviour and unreliability disrupts shifts and this Department must go to considerable expense to cover these shifts with other men at overtime rates.”
Hiring for only four months a year meant that the available pool of applicants included many workers with questionable employment records. In 1999, the Parks and Receation general manager wrote that of 25 applicants with refrigeration certificates (still a requirement at that time, not any more now), only 6 were found suitable. The situation was made even more difficult by amalgamation, when four seniority pools were combined. Many zamboni drivers ended up in those jobs by entitlement rather than interest. And it showed. By the time Dufferin Rink was starting to become a lively neighbourhood social space, some of the downtown rinks had gone down to less than once-a-day ice maintenance. After a snowstorm, rinks might stay closed for three days before a plough removed the snow. Rink use went down steadily. Sometimes, the rink supervisors just threw up their hands and ignored complaints or requests for improvements – they were baffled too, they couldn’t make their temporary staff work out any better. All they could do was hope for a speedy end to the pain of the rink season.
Toronto had a wonderful inventory of rinks, but they were in difficulty. By the year 2000, three rinks had been mothballed in North York, one in Etobicoke, one in downtown Toronto. Their compressors stood silent, the concrete rink surfaces gradually crumbled, and the exposed pipes that were meant to carry the coolant began to rust away.
In 2001, City Council voted to cut the rink season down to ten weeks (from 15) to save money. The money they saved was used to hire new ticketing officers to increase the city’s parking-fines revenue. Soon after, some bright minds at City Hall must have decided that the only remedy for the operating problems was to shut down most of the rinks altogether. They hired a consultant to show why outdoor rinks no longer made sense in Toronto. Global warming, and the supposed disinterest of immigrants in skating, were high on the list of reasons. The inability of city management to find and place good rink workers was not mentioned.
One of the consultant’s research staff called me (since I was by then a known outdoor rinks enthusiast) at home in March 2003 to warn me. He said that the consultant’s final report didn’t match the city's “rinks should be shut down” agenda. The report was too optimistic about the future of outdoor skating, in a city so rich in outdoor rinks. So the report had been shelved. Meantime, City Council was considering cutting all the outdoor rinks back to eight weeks a year, to save more money.
We had our little research group by then, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space, CELOS. We sent a memo about the steadily-shrinking rink-season history to every council member. We asked skaters all over the city to write e-mails and call their councilors, and they did. There was no cutback from a ten-week to an eight-week season, and no more rinks were mothballed. But many of the rinks continued to languish.
Meantime, Dufferin Rink was getting people from all across town coming to skate there. How did this happen?
Dufferin Rink was rebuilt from scratch in the summer and fall of 1993. That was the also the first summer of the Big Backyard, and as the construction crews worked on the rink, I sometimes asked the kids if they were looking forward to skating there in winter. Quite a few of the summer kids 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, far 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.
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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.
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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, skaters were sometimes startled, when they came in the rink house doors, 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. Partway through the rink season, we had a rink party, with Christmas lights strung up on the rink fence outside, good food from the bake oven, and a string quartet playing classical music in the corner of the clubhouse. Two of the performers in the string quartet were also rink guards. Meran’s classmate Ariel, a viola player at the school of music, had applied to work at the park after Meran told her what a nice place it was, despite all the trouble.
The rink house renovations.
The Dufferin Grove rink house, completely rebuilt in 1993, had too many walls and not enough windows. During rink season, it was impossible for the rink staff to keep an eye on whatever foolishness might be going on in the separate, walled-off change rooms. Parents couldn’t stay warm and watch their kids out on the ice at the same time – there were no eye-level windows to the outside. (All the windows started three meters up.) The retired Italian construction workers, who had begun to use the rink house every day to play cards, were jammed in by the wall in the boys’ change room. When the mayor came to give her speech in October, she had to stand in the hall.
I asked Tino, our new recreation supervisor, how can we get rid of some of these walls and make a more usable room? He said, talk to the director. I called Mario Zanetti, and he sent out a building inspector.
We showed the building inspector the two concrete-block walls we wanted to be taken out, to make one big, flexible-use room. We asked him – if these walls are removed, will the building fall down? He showed us the big steel beams holding up the roof. The interior walls were not bearing walls. They wouldn’t be hard to remove, he said, but it would be expensive. He estimated that for the City to remove the smaller wall that blocked the staff’s view into the girls’ change room (about ten feet long) would cost $6000. The bigger wall, separating the two change rooms, would cost about $10,000. I can see that it would be a good idea, he said. But you’d better get busy fundraising.
We didn’t want to use our time to have bake sales; we wanted to work with families, to get them back into the rink, dilute the youth ghetto, mix it up, bring all sorts of people together. We had a key to the building, and we’d tried to make it as nice as we could, but it was not a pleasant space to be in. Everybody told us – great idea, a clubhouse with one big community room – but taking walls out will cost money that the City doesn’t have.
We wondered how you remove a concrete block wall. One weekend a park friend came with a spike and hammer to try out a technique he had heard. If you just chip away the mortar, a construction friend had told him, you can lift the block right out and start on the next one. A few of us came over to watch. It was really easy.
So we took out the smaller wall. It took four hours for five of us. Suddenly the view into the girls’ change room had opened up. The whole place looked bigger.
When we confessed to city management what we’d done, there was some finger-wagging at City Hall. But at the same time we had the impression that the city staff got a bit of a laugh. The story spread. Everyone knew that the change made sense, but no one had thought there was a way to make it happen.
The city sent in a carpenter to fix the edges where the wall had been removed. Then we asked for an interior window in the staff office, facing the change room, so that the staff could see what was going on in there. That window was put in by a city crew, without any mention of the cost. We called our city councillor, Mario Silva, to come out and have a look. We asked him, would he be willing to get his Council colleagues to approve money to put four eye-level windows into the rink house, two in each room, so people could see out, and parents could watch their kids out on the ice? And could they be windows that opened, so the building could get some air circulation in the summer? He said, I’ll see what I can do.
He came through for us. The city hired two window installers and they had it all done in two days – four windows, each with a quarter section that opened. Suddenly the outside world reappeared, in this formerly sealed-off concrete capsule which had looked so much like a prison holding-cell. The windows were so useful that we knew we had to go the next step. One Saturday morning in October, ten park friends came to the rink with gloves and overalls and dismantled the middle wall separating the two change rooms. It took longer than the first time, to loosen and take down all those blocks – almost 12 hours – but as the wall got lower and lower and the window on the other side of the wall came into view, it was a thrill to see the red leaves of the maple tree outside. Finally, the rink house was one good room, allowing a community clubhouse.
Over the next several years, a few more changes were made, piece by piece as they were needed or as money came available. The window openings were too small to let in much air, so we used the final $700 Dufferin Mall donation to get a carpenter to replace one of the windows with casements. The grandmother of a little skater donated a Maytag stove, so the rink house began smelling like cookies baking instead of only stale hockey bags. In 1996 the City gave us a “Food and Hunger Action” grant to convert the office, and the slop room across the entry hall, into two halves of a community kitchen. The same year, we sent the Maytree Foundation an old photo from the 1930’s, showing a woodstove in a general store with people gathered around it: would the Foundation be willing to fund a woodstove for the rink house? To our delight, they were willing. When it was installed, the city paid for a little wrought iron fence around it, for safety. The fence had an extra bar for drying wet mittens, used countless times since then.
The rink change room’s fluorescent lights were ugly and made people look greenish in the evening, so we begged $1000 of track lights from Home Depot. They said no, at first, and then changed their minds and presented us with the lights on St.Valentine’s Day. The softer, focused lighting made a huge difference in the long winter evenings – people stayed and played chess, and more youth started bringing their dates on Fridays. After skating, they could drink hot chocolate with their girlfriends and watch the flames in the woodstove together. Then in 2003, the City gave us another kitchen grant to add a second small kitchen in an unused alcove in the zamboni garage. That addition was a bit more complicated, so the G.H.Wood Foundation topped it up with an $8000 grant to let us finish. The second kitchen made Friday Night Suppers possible, and its proximity to the bake ovens (we added a second smaller oven in 2000) reduced the public health officials’ qualms about food safety.
In this way the existing 3-month-a-year rink house was changed into a small year-round neighbourhood clubhouse. This happened without a middle man, architect or otherwise – step by step and piecemeal, as useful changes suggested themselves to park users and rink staff, and as City or Foundation money became available. The total cost was about $51,000. The reason all these changes were needed is that the building was designed for a single purpose – skating – and even that function was given its narrowest possible range. Skaters were meant to come into the building and change from shoes to skates, then go outside and skate, under the on-and-off supervision of rink guards, then come back inside and change back into shoes and leave.
This single-use rink house acquired new possibilities when the changes were made. People came into the rink house and sat down in the big room with their friends, talking and drinking hot chocolate and slowly getting their skates on. Out on the ice, they played shinny hockey for hours and then they got hungry, and went back inside and ate mini-pizzas or soup, and drank coffee. Parents sat in front of the woodstove with their children, reading them storybooks. The old men played card games for hours, and got their coffee for free, “since we worked so hard for this country.” Sometimes musicians brought their instruments, using the echo-y concrete blocks to good effect. There was enough room to fit in a farmers’ market eventually, when it was too cold to have it outside along the path. On those days, the zamboni parked out on the basketball court, to make room for more farmers in the garage.
In spring, summer, and fall, the clubhouse became a staging area for dance festivals, outdoor theatre, and cultural events. Park staff and volunteers used the kitchens to turn out snack bar food and Friday Night Supper meals and café snacks and miles of park cookies (if they were laid end to end). All this food became the heart of an ever-expanding number of social encounters, spreading throughout the park. Once in a while, there was even a beer permit and the (re-christened) zamboni café had kegs on the counter.
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In 2004, recreation supervisor Tino DeCastro came across an application form for free skates and hockey gear, available for rinks, from the NHL Players’ Association. Applicant rinks could get 50 sets of hockey equipment, including skates, sticks, helmets, gloves, padding – the whole thing. We applied for Dufferin Rink, saying we wanted loaner skates and shinny equipment in a range of sizes. The NHL Players’ Association said yes, and the equipment arrived soon after. We were astonished at how quickly the colour of the rink changed. Immigrant newcomers of all generations and cultures, it turned out, liked skating very much. They just didn’t have the money to buy skates and the rest of the equipment. Tibetans, Vietnamese, Brazilians, Peruvians, Cubans – all of them got out on the rink, with the borrowed equipment.
By then our metaphorical rink “pantry” was well stocked, with the new loaner skates and sticks, a pleasant clubhouse with a woodstove and two little community kitchens, old locker room benches (repainted) for people to sit on, games and books for the warm-up periods between skating sessions, and many bulletin boards. To make good use of all these resources, there was a talented group of rink program staff. But just before Christmas 2004, two health and safety inspectors visited Dufferin Rink and said we had to scrap the multi-use clubhouse, rip out the new community kitchen, and get back to running the rink like the other city rinks. The metaphor of the pantry was replaced by the metaphor of the fox in the henhouse, bent on mayhem. There was a public outcry, accompanied by e-mails and newspaper articles, even an NFB short. The just-elected new mayor, David Miller, let it be known that he backed Dufferin Rink as it was.
So nothing was torn out. We felt somewhat vindicated in our alternative to the City’s slack way of running rinks. But still we could find no way into the labyrinthine structure of the city bureaucracy, to influence how the outdoor rinks were run. No one in management was interested in the outcomes of our approach.
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In a situation like that, it’s tempting to just abandon the project of going against the grain. Many poorly-run rinks lose their “friends” progressively when people see their efforts meeting with indifference, or actually being undermined. Once the partisan rink friends fade away, there may be nobody left to notice whether the change rooms are open or the ice is cleaned.
But we picked another route. The alternative we chose was to try going ahead as though rational improvements were going to be possible elsewhere.
We started by visiting all the other municipal outdoor rinks so that we could get to know the whole city inventory. Such a project is usually attempted, if at all, by an external consulting company with a city contract. The last rink-related contract cost the city $87,000. But we wanted to do our inventory with people who already know the rinks – as skaters, rink enthusiasts, or determined part-time rink staff. The right people to shape these kinds of projects are the people directly affected by the outcome. So we just went ahead, contract-less.
Visiting outdoor compressor rinks outside of those in central Toronto was an eye-opener. Although the forced amalgamation of Toronto and its neighboring cities (Scarborough, North York, and Etobicoke) was by then 5 years old, the neighbourhood outdoor rink cultures could hardly have been more different. In the former suburban cities, outdoor rinks were mainly single pads. The ones with hockey boards were (and still are) almost entirely focused on hockey-league permits during their prime-time hours, with only a few hours on evenings or weekends for drop-in shinny hockey or pleasure-skating (which they called “free skate”). In Etobicoke the car culture meant that West Mall Rink, the main outdoor civic rink (the only one with a double pad) kept the front doors of the change room locked all season, even though the bus stopped right outside the doors. Skaters getting off the bus had to walk through un-shoveled snow, around to the back of the building. There a well-shoveled path connected the back doors of the rink change room to the parking lot.
In North York, when our crew visited, they were astonished to find that three of the rinks had a policy of keeping the rinks locked all day until skaters with paid permits came. There was a rink operator, but he sat in his office. If a skater came by during the daytime, the rink operator told him or her that only people who had paid for a permit were allowed on the ice. The permits were $60 at that time, so of course the would-be skaters would go away and not come back.
When our team asked city management when such a policy had been established, it turned out that the supervisors didn’t know their staff were keeping the rinks locked whenever there was no paid permit. There was no policy to allow only skaters who had paid extra in addition to their taxes, to come in. But the practice had been in place since at least 1997.
So it turned out that neighbourly sociability at the Etobicoke and North York rinks was mostly limited to permit holders in adjacent time slots. There was an exception, though. Etobicoke has nine rinks they called “minor,” meaning they don’t have hockey boards and they don’t have on-site staff. Those rinks are more like rectangular ponds (pipes under tennis courts). At those rinks, where there are no onsite staff and therefore no externally imposed rules or permits, there was sometimes a lively, multi-generational scene of sociability.
For four years after our inventory project began, our group kept working at getting the word out about what we found. The Dufferin Rink staff set up an unofficial but tolerated citywide hotline for current rink conditions and wrote a little citywide staff resource booklet. Rink friends contacted supervisors about the locked rinks and an assortment of other oversights, and deputed on rink-related items to committees of Council. In February 2006 we held a public meeting to consider changing Dufferin Rink to a Board of Management.
CUPE Local 416 sent union staff to explain that because of the city’s collective agreement with CUPE, a Board of Management would not be able change any of the ways the rink was run.
We monitored budget items, and found this in the agenda of City Council’s budget committee: “2006, Item 4: proposal to close all outdoor artificial ice rinks except Nathan Phillips Square and Mel Lastman Rink, saving operating costs of $569,400 for December 2006 and $1,117,500 for January-February 2007.” A freedom of information request to find out the background of this proposal came up empty – the city clerk determined that this issue was related to city policy still being developed, and was therefore exempt from public disclosure. When we submitted the same information request again later, the City responded that we would have to pay $1560 for the estimated 52 hours of search time it would take for staff to find the supporting documents. So we dropped our request.
We got a small grant to produce a “Rink Report” describing inexpensive ways to use the existing inventory of rinks better. We asked our Ward 18 city councilor to help us present the report to the Parks Committee, thinking we might finally get the City’s attention. The councillor got the report on the committee’s agenda for April 2007. Rink friends came to watch.
No luck there, though. The committee members looked bored and distracted. It became clear that several of them hadn’t grasped the difference between natural and compressor-cooled ice rinks at all, and didn’t care either. After 10 minutes of unfocused discussion, our Rink Report was sent back into the bureaucracy for burial. The committee directed the general manager of PFR to submit a staff report in return. But there was never any follow-up staff report. Outdoor rinks seemed to be right off the radar.
They didn’t stay that way, though. In mid-August 2007, then-Mayor David Miller announced that the city’s 49 outdoor compressor-cooled ice rinks wouldn’t open until January 1, to save money. This proposal turned out to be front-page news. CELOS set up a website called “saveourrinks.ca” and rink users began to gather their forces. Then the story had an unexpected plot twist. Although requests by various (mainly “right-wing”) councillors to discuss alternatives to the rink cuts were repeatedly ruled out of order by “left-wing” members of City Council, MasterCard suddenly stepped into the spotlight. Their president offered to donate the $160,000 that the City said they would save by keeping the rinks closed during December (the busiest month of the rink season). So the rinks opened on time after all. But the numbers were strange. We went back to Freedom of Information to find out the actual cost of operating the outdoor rinks for a month: was the cost $569,000 (from the 2006 Budget Committee report) or $160,000 (from City Council in 2007)? When we added up all the numbers we got, the cost came to about $1.1 million a month. That made more sense. We wondered: why did the city’s estimates slide around so much?
We decided to give the “save our rinks” website a new name – cityrinks.ca, “the unofficial website of Toronto’s outdoor skating rinks.” The website would be our public record for the ramifying bits of rink information we were collecting. Our group did another round of rink visits that winter, and we posted a page for every rink. We made up report cards, assigning each rink marks for their assets and how they used them: benches, windows, mats, ice maintenance, drop-in access, cleanliness, family-friendliness, special programs, skates to lend, bulletin boards, snacks, etc.
In February of 2008 we began lobbying councillors about the timing of the rink season, trying for a return to the sensible mid-November opening and end-of-February closing times that used to be the norm for compressor-cooled rinks. On the cityrinks.ca website, we posted graphs about weather, temperature, and ice-making, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt (in our view) that keeping eight rinks open into the middle of March – the plan for that year – was a mistake. But at city hall the argument got even more extreme. The right-leaning councillors were in favour of extending the season into March break for all rinks. They squared off against the left-leaning councillors, who spoke in favour of only eight rinks, to save money. The rinks were back in the news again as the councillors shouted at each other about budgets versus sorrowful children with nothing to do in March break. We sent our cityrinks.ca “angle-of-the-sun” links to everybody, but neither the councillors nor the media wanted us to confuse them with the facts. The left-leaning majority carried the day at a March 9 vote, giving the Toronto Sun the opportunity to run a banner headline against them: PINK FINKS SINK RINKS. Score.
But actually, neither side scored. The argument was stupid. So our group of outdoor rink enthusiasts turned away and tried to keep steering our own course: back to our inventory, and how to make best use of it. We wanted to talk about using what we have already to turn more outdoor rinks into winter neighbourhood community centres.
Dufferin Rink was struggling with the crowds nearby. The combination of good ice, reliable rink schedules, winter soup and cookies, skate loans (and welcoming staff) was attracting too many skaters, and sometimes it seemed that not one more person could fit in. In 2006, the rink staff asked their supervisor Tino DeCastro if he might let them try to reorganize the two other nearby rinks, Wallace and Campbell. The idea was that if those two rinks were friendlier places, people would spread out into all three rinks and Dufferin Rink wouldn’t be so crowded.
The story of Wallace Rink
Wallace Rink was built in 1983, long after Giovanni Caboto Rink (called Earlscourt) to the north and Dufferin Rink to the south. It was part of a brand new community recreation centre, built on the site of a closed-down airplane factory that had turned out war planes in WW2. Alderman J.J. Piccininni was the force behind building the centre. His name belied his stature – he was an enormous man, well over 300 pounds, an alderman for 25 years – and he was determined to get as many centres built for his Italian-Canadian constituency as possible. The airplane factory had become an informal community centre after the city bought it, and the Italian men had converted one section into a clubhouse and card-playing room. As the plans for the new centre were developed, the Italian men became wary of the direction the plans were taking, no longer a man-clubhouse but a flashy sports centre with a daycare and agency offices and a rink, and only limited hours for the card players. There were many community meetings to adjust the plans, and these meetings eventually became so acrimonious that police had to attend in case of fist-fights.
Despite the community dissent (which may have contributed to Piccininni’s defeat in the following election), the community centre was built. It was an architectural showpiece, with solar panels all over the enormous south-facing roof. According to then-Parks Commissioner Herb Pirk (who didn’t agree with the design), the panels "never worked for one minute." The rink, a double pad, had a very small change room, tucked in behind a garage that turned out to be too small for the ice resurfacer. The entrance to the change room was at the back of the centre, through heavy steel doors with two tiny wire-reinforced peephole windows, and the room quickly picked up the nickname it kept forever after: the dungeon. There were no other windows. Light came from harsh fluorescent lights; and there was no second exit door. Most skaters avoided the change room, preferring to change into their skates outside. Outside seating was along the flat top of a long, two-foot-high retaining wall that edged a sloped berm (a twelve-foot-high man-made hill apparently designed to block out the view to the adjacent shopping mall). Even getting to the rink pads from the parking lot or the pedestrian path was tricky. The berm made it necessary to detour to a long stairway located right next to the solar-panel roof. There were often giant icicles hanging down from the roof edge, occasionally breaking off and smashing on the slippery concrete steps. Many skaters approaching from the west chose to pick their way down the embankment of the berm hill instead, a more direct route than the stairs, and avoiding the icicles. Once they got down to the rink doors, they were in a dead end – there was no foot traffic going by, because another retaining wall topped by a high chain link fence cut off an alternative route to the parking lot. The secluded entry and the “dungeon” made it a handy place for illegal business transactions, and also for power games among the youth.
The rink was popular at the beginning, but attendance gradually dropped off as families stopped coming, and as youth on the losing side found it unsafe and went down the street to Dufferin Rink to skate, instead.
In 1997, when Dufferin Rink was beginning to get too crowded, and staff were looking to redirect some of the skaters, we (staff and rink enthusiasts) hatched a plan to reclaim Wallace Rink. Our plan was to convert a small back storage room beside the Wallace Rink change room into a little makeshift kitchen. Isabel Perez, one of the first cooks at Dufferin Grove, would make some nice food and begin a rink conversion similar to that at Dufferin Rink.
But a couple of hours into the first evening when Isabel was installed there, she phoned and asked me to come and get her. She didn’t feel safe, she said, and didn’t want to stay down in the “dungeon.” I was very surprised. Isabel and I had worked together for over a year, cooking Monday Night suppers at the Bob Abate Community Centre kitchen with a big group of edgy young El Salvadorean ‘gangsters’ who called themselves the “L.A.’s” – Latinos Americanos. During that whole year, Isabel had never been nervous. But she left Wallace Rink in a hurry when I came to get her, and said she wouldn’t be coming back. So we jettisoned that idea.
The next year, a youth shot a rink guard in the leg with a pellet gun, in the “dungeon” change room, just for fun. The rink guard was wearing thick jeans, which stopped the pellets, and he wasn’t badly hurt. But after a whole season of harassment by the Wallace Rink youth, the rink guard was angry, and he called Tino, the supervisor. When Tino went into the change room, he found the room’s two rickety card tables overturned, and a group of youths tossing chairs at each other.
Tino called the police. While he was on the phone, another youth took the pellet gun and shot a hole in the windshield of Tino’s car outside. The police came quickly at the mention of a gun. They searched all the youth, found the gun on one of them, and arrested him. Twelve months, 10 court “set-dates” and one guilty plea later, the youth was sentenced to a year’s probation and fifty hours of community service. Two of us had gone to most of the court dates, to learn how the system worked, and we tried to submit a victim impact statement on behalf of the neighbourhood, telling how the behaviour of all these youth was emptying out the rink. We asked the Court to require the community service hours to be done at Dufferin Grove, so that the young man could see what it felt like to build up a rink instead of tearing it down.
But the Court wasn’t interested in our letter, and the youth was sent to stuff envelopes at the Red Cross instead. Frustration! So we again postponed our efforts to turn Wallace Rink around.
Early one summer morning in 2004, the community centre caretaker found a dead man lying outside on the grass near the rink change room doors. He appeared to have been shot from behind. His car was parked in the mall parking lot, but he was not from the neighbourhood. Based on the dead man’s history, the police said it was probably a gang execution related to drugs. Anyone lured to the rink area would have been unable to even try to get away – trapped in the dead end created by the high chain link fence that surrounded the rink and the compressor room. The murder drove us to try again, to make that part of the community centre safer and bring the community back.
Our first move was to add foot traffic by getting rid of the dead end. There was a space between the compressor room and the rink pad where the chain link fence could be rolled back and a short stairway could be added, connecting the parking lot to the rink and to the lower level of the community centre. In the fall, before the rink season began, we asked the City to build such a stairway, but they said there was no money.
So we got to work. Two regular Wallace shinny players who were carpenters volunteered to build a simple stairway right beside the compressor room. They measured it all out one evening, and we went to New Canadians Lumber the next day, using Dufferin Rink “cookie money” to pay for the wood and the nails. The following Saturday, when most City staff were off for the weekend, we undid the chain link clips and rolled the fence back by two fencepost sections. Our carpenters spent the day building the steps, with lots of help and snacks brought by other volunteers. By the end of the afternoon, the steps were done. We had the satisfaction of seeing the first few families use our new stairway as a direct route from the parking lot to the playground.
A few days later a city inspector came and threatened to get the stairs taken down because they had been built without a permit. But by then the new access route was used by everybody who came in from the parking lot, including city workers coming in to get the rink ready for the winter. We got away with a slap on the wrist.
Next came the addition of a few seasoned rink staff from down the road at Dufferin Rink. They brought over a metal barrel and started making campfires with marshmallows and hot dogs on the weekends. We thought it would give a signal to the families who still brought their kids for skating lessons: this rink is going to be family-friendly again. But the bitter winds of winter drove the staff inside on the coldest days, and although they tried to set up games tables and a reading corner, and brought the hot chocolate inside, it was indisputably dreary.
Even so, the numbers of skaters began to increase, the more so since we lobbied the city councillor to get better ice maintenance for the rink. A very good zamboni driver named Dexter was transferred there, and when Dufferin Rink was too crowded, the staff there could encourage the overflow to go to Wallace Rink: “don’t forget, Dexter is there and he’s making really good ice.”
Since 2002, the city’s planners had been talking about replacing the Wallace Rink slab, the pipes and the whole cooling plant. At the end of 2005, they got serious. We asked for the rink renovation blueprints, taped them up on the wall, and said to rink users: what would you like to see? Nobody was particularly good at reading blueprints, but it was obvious that fixing the “dungeon” was not part of the renovation plan. So we lobbied the city councillor for a rebuilt change room with windows and a kitchen. The city councillor “found some money,” as the expression goes, to add the change room to the plans, and the rink was rebuilt starting September 2006. There were no funds for a kitchen, but the dysfunctional garage, always too low to hold a zamboni anyway, was removed from the front of the change room, and a whole bank of windows was put in. At the beginning of January 2007, the rink re-opened. The expanded change room had rubber flooring, plenty of benches, a little snack counter, a few small tables for checkers and kids’ books, two bulletin boards for community notices and – best of all – it had light and an unobstructed view out to the rink. Parents could sit on a warm, sunny bench by the windows and keep an eye on their young skaters while chatting comfortably with their neighbours who were doing the same thing. When the kids came in, they could get a snack and warm up and then go back out again. The dungeon had vanished forever, and the rink culture would hopefully never slide back into bedlam.
It wasn’t a fairy-tale ending, in which the trouble-makers turn into handsome princes. It wasn’t an ending at all, but a beginning, allowing various small neighbourhood dramas to be played out in this renovated winter forum. The players in this expanded drama were no longer only the tough kids with a chip on their shoulder. But those kids kept on coming too. Experienced staff began working with them and imposing sanctions on those who liked to intimidate other skaters. A large-print “code of conduct” sign went up by the front door, and generous doses of nagging went with it. The staff applied to the NHL Players’ Association for fifty pairs of skates, sticks, gloves, and helmets. When the boxes arrived at the rink, the skates were sprayed orange to discourage stealing, and fifty pairs were lined up in the staff room on rickety shelving we had scrounged at garage sales, with a sign announcing “pay-what-you-can skate loans, suggested donation $2.” The cheap loaner skates brought in newcomers from many non-skating cultures, eager to learn this new art. The colour of the rink began to change, and the attendance increased steadily.
Yet at the very same time, ice maintenance began to fall off and became very unreliable. We were mystified to learn that Wallace Rink had been downgraded to “minor rink” status by a new ice maintenance supervisor from Etobicoke. It turned out that the supervisor, and his manager, felt that a rink without its own zamboni garage was a kind of afterthought, rating once- or at the most twice-a-day ice-resurfacing.
Those of us who had taken part in the renovation discussions two years before were a bit ashamed of ourselves. We felt foolish. We had been so focused on getting a better change room that we hadn’t really noticed that the new plans didn’t include a shelter for the zamboni. Of course, Wallace Rink had never had a proper garage, so the zamboni had always been parked outdoors. But when the city gave an architect the rink contract, we assumed that the design would have everything a proper rink needed. We concentrated on the extra piece – the space for people to gather. We also realized afterwards that the steps we had built had been torn out for the construction and were not in the plan to be restored. (They were rebuilt after four agitated meetings with the project manager.)
The players’ boxes had been boarded up to remove a location for rowdy behaviour, replaced by an utterly unworkable system of gates and free-standing benches with a two-foot drop behind them.
The water line was barely accessible for the zamboni to fill its tanks. The zamboni’s water hose always leaked onto the main walkway and froze into thick, treacherous ice. People slipped all the time and banged their backbones. There was no on-site natural gas line so the maintenance staff had to bring regular fuel in plastic containers – and if they forgot, the zamboni was stranded. As we saw how many things were wrong, our embarrassment grew, for being so gullible. The city had hired rink architects and specialized contractors for 10 per cent of the rink budget because – we had assumed – they were experts. Wouldn’t they make sure that everything needful was included?
The answer, which we grasped too late, was – no. And the lack of a garage turned out to be the worst of all – giving the new ice maintenance staff a reason to cut way back on ice maintenance. Wallace Rink, a double pad rebuilt for over $1 million, was put on the “flying squad,” meant for single pad rinks. The flying squad with its travelling zamboni often came just twice a day, or even only once a day. Ice quality plummeted. For quite a while, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. How could the City spend over a million dollars to rebuild a rink and then almost abandon its maintenance? Surely it was not possible.
But it was happening. The up-side was that more rink users learned how to clean the rink the old-fashioned way, skating behind the old metal shovels in formation. Other old skills were re-learned. When it rained and the water had to be taken off so that the deep puddles wouldn’t create a lot of shell ice when they froze, the recreation staff laid the thick, heavy black rink hoses across the ice, using them to drag the water down to the end of the rink and guide it out the gates.
Recreation staff (and rink users too) learned a lot about ice maintenance. We also acquired new determination. We logged the ice maintenance occasions (or lack of them), posted them on the web, and sent the links to the councillor. I made myself a pest, leaving messages on people’s voice mail and e-mailing any management staff I could think of. We taped up copies of the e-mails at the rink, and reminded frustrated skaters to take their complaints up the line. The last month of the rink season was better. But the following rink season the circus started over again: no garage, no dedicated zamboni, no adequate ice maintenance. The Women’s Hockey group collected money for a heated tent like the High Park Rink tent for the zamboni. The Parks and Recreation general manager countered that zamboni tents would no longer be used by the city, but that there was no money for a garage.
Our watchword became “make good use of what we have!” If the city has a good rink, why neglect it with bad maintenance? Eventually our protests grew so strong that Wallace got a metal shed for a garage, with insulation and heaters, and its own zamboni. All this happened near the end of the 2010 rink season. Nice, but no reason to stop being vigilant. By then, after four years, we had become realistic. No promises were to be relied on.
The one thing that’s not predictable, even for cynics, is the possibility of a good surprise. Soon after the 2010 election, new Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao said she had found funds to put kitchen-plumbing and wiring into both the Wallace and Campbell rink change rooms. The rink staff went to auctions and restaurant bankruptcy sales, to buy commercial kitchen sinks and second-hand fridges and prep tables -- amazingly cheap. Rink friend David Rothberg gave a donation to help. But would the councillor really manage to make good on her promise?
She did. City carpenters and plumbers and electricians came to the rinks, asked the recreation staff for sketches, drilled holes in the floor and ran wires along the ceiling in the right places. Wallace Rink got its proper kitchen. The loaner skates were neatly shelved on one side of the staff room, while the soup supplies and the drink boxes were set up in an orderly way on the other side. The cooks had a usable kitchen. They found out that Wallace Rink users preferred chicken noodle soup to the curry soups that were popular at Dufferin Rink. Interesting! Wallace Rink began to be as busy as Dufferin Rink, so the crowding was spread out more. The youth work was tough, but there was much in the troublemaker kids that staff could admire, and even love. The rink’s ice quality was mostly better than it had been in previous years.
“Making good use of what we have” is a motto that gradually turned a dungeon into a wonderfully mixed-use clubhouse, and a rink into a winter community centre. Could that motto be employed everywhere?
The story of Queensway Rink
Queensway Rink, and the eight other compressor-cooled rinks without hockey boards in Etobicoke, are classified as “minor” rinks by Etobicoke parks management. All of their former rink change rooms have been kept locked for at least ten years. The rinks have no program staff, and so they show up on the city budget as very economical.
When I went by Queensway Rink in 2010 I saw a saw a brand new field house. But it was locked too. I wrote to the ward councillor, Peter Milczyn: why is the change room locked?
He invited me to come to his office and have a talk about it. He also invited capital projects coordinator Doug Giles and recreation supervisor Dave Hains. I brought Mayssan Shuja Uddin, who coordinates the three Ward 18 rinks.
Councillor Milczyn told us that the neighbourhood was established as a subdivision for returning soldiers just after World War Two, in 1947. Its streets curve around Queensway Park and one street goes right through. The park is surrounded by lots of cozy-looking small houses. Nobody at the meeting knew exactly when the rink was built. But the councillor said that around 1994 it was decided that the rink was run down and would soon need to be rebuilt, and it was put on the official “State-of-Good-Repair” list. There was a city-owned house across the street that was used as a senior’s centre. Since it wasn’t getting much attendance, the city sold the building for about $100,000 and put the money into the rink rebuilding fund.
Then came the forced amalgamation of the four cities. Councillor Milczyn said the sale money must have disappeared into the new City’s general funds. It was “really just a drop in the bucket” anyway, he said, for the funds needed to rebuild the rink. The rink project gradually moved up the capital projects to-do list, and in the summer of 2006, two architectural firms were hired to work on the design. The Queensway project was to include a new field house with a community room and a rink change room, as well as a rebuilt rink pad and a generously-sized, nicely landscaped parking area. The existing rink and the modest existing field house would go. The new rink would be square, instead of rectangular. The square shape was to encourage pleasure-skating and discourage the shinny hockey that the rink was mainly used for, which was seen as noisy and as tending to take over an outdoor rink, if given a chance.
The field house plan turned out to be too costly, so in 2007 the architects modified their plans to make a slightly smaller building, combining the skate changing room with the community meeting room. It was decided to do the project in stages, beginning not with the rink, but with the field house. $1.2 million was allocated, of which $250,000 was from the developer of an over-size condominium at Queensway and Islington. The rest was borrowed funds, to be gradually repaid though taxes and permit revenues. There was a cost overrun, and the final cost of the field house was $1.54 million.
There it stood, with tasteful soft-gray stone on the curving walls outside, lots of glass, and an impressive front entrance. But you can’t get in: there’s a sign that says “Building locked due to vandalism.” That’s not the only reason the doors are locked, though. When I first wrote to the councillor’s office to ask about the field house, his assistant wrote back: “Councillor Milczyn has advised that it is intended to be closed/locked unless it has actually been permitted out to the community.” The issue is cost recovery (a favourite term of city management).
How many permits would the City need to sell to pay off the $1.54 million cost of the field house? At $90 per permit (for such a small space), that would require 17,000 permits. If there were (realistically) three permits a week, it would take about 110 years to pay off the field house cost. At an unrealistic six permits a week, total field house cost recovery could be achieved in only 55 years. If permits went back-to-back on weekends as well, the field house cost might be recovered in 30 years.
Of course, that’s only the initial capital cost, and only of the field house, not of the new rink surface and the lights and the zamboni and the compressors. The considerable fuel costs to run the cooling plant, and the maintenance cost to keep such an intensively-used building clean and attractive to potential permit customers, are not included either.
So the goal of “cost recovery” for a fancy new rink is a pipe dream. It’s lucky that there are taxes to help pay for the Queensway Rink, so that permits only have to pay for a part of the cost.
But wait a minute....if taxes end up paying for most of the new rink, and yet the building is only used for private, paid permits, what are the taxpayers getting for their money, in return?
Not much, at the Queensway Rink field house. We learned from project coordinator Doug Giles that the building was completed in the fall of 2010. The councillor told us that up to 2011, when we were sitting in his office, no use had been made of it. There was no money left over for furniture, for one thing, so the “skate changing/meeting room” area is mostly empty, with only two wall-mounted benches. Perhaps because there are so few benches, the field house was never entered into the permit system. After more than a year of locked doors, skaters have no access to change their skates, and it’s not possible to get a permit either.
Etobicoke has nine so-called “minor” rinks, with cooling plants and daily visits by ice-resurfacer machines. Each of the rinks has a small-to-medium size field house with some kind of a neighbourhood clubhouse room inside it, and each of those clubhouses is kept locked. All of the field houses have washrooms, and those washrooms are also generally kept locked, year-round. In central Toronto, it’s assumed that people having picnics, people strolling under the trees, people with young children, older people – all need washroom access. But Councillor Milczyn told me that it’s not the practice in Etobicoke to provide washroom access for people who visit parks. “If they need to use a washroom, they can go home,” his assistant said.
We asked: what if a rink attendant were placed at the field house for four hours on Saturday afternoons and again on Sunday afternoons? Rink staff generally get minimum wage, so that would mean about $100 for the weekend, times twelve weeks is $1200 for the season. Then, if the recreation supervisor could scrounge a few old benches from some unused locker room, and borrow some rubber mats so the skaters could walk inside, perhaps the field house would begin its usefulness to those taxpayers who like to warm up, or chat, or go to the bathroom before they’re ready to go home....?
No dice. About ten years ago (by the recreation supervisor’s estimate) the decision was made not to place any staff at the half of Etobicoke’s rinks that are without hockey boards. That decision stands. The money’s not there, Councillor Milczyn said. But where, I asked, on the coldest winter days, would skaters change, if not in the room marked “skate change room” on the building plans? The councillor suggested the washroom, if it were opened to the public during skating hours.
That would match the situation of skaters at the new outdoor rink on the lakeshore, Sherbourne Commons. The glassed-in change room is off limits to skaters (only staff can sit in there). On cold days, skaters can change into their skates while sitting on the state-of-the-art toilets, or crouching in the corner near the sinks.
At least it’s warm.
Meantime, another five years later, the next phase of the Queensway Rink “State-of-Good-Repair” project will begin. As for the old Queensway ice rink plant that was deemed to be at the end of its useful life in 1994 – it ran until 2014. The old locked field house is still there now. It’s a rectangular box with no windows, but it looks pretty solid. It’s probably not much over 60 years old. (Buildings over 50 years old seem to automatically get on the city’s “overdue for replacement” list.)
What would have happened if, instead of borrowing money to build the $1.54 million new field house, the City had put some funds into the old field house? It would have needed a few eye-level windows, a new coat of paint, a couple of tables and benches, and a little kitchen/skate-lending room, plus some lights to illuminate the rink on the dark winter days (there’s only one small morality light). And what if the tax funds that the city uses every year now to pay the interest on its Queensway loan had been used instead to pay a few friendly, imaginative recreation staff? The question is not hypothetical. That’s more or less exactly what happened at Campbell Rink.
The story of Campbell Rink.
Campbell Rink is in a park surrounded by houses only slightly bigger than those around Queensway Park. Most of them were built just before or just after World War One. Campbell Park was established on three adjoining parcels of former industrial land at the urging of the Perth-Royce Community Council (Mrs. Beryl Campbell was the president), in 1946. One of the three properties had a coal yard and a cartage business at one time. The second piece of land was owned by Eastern Power devices but used only for storage, and the third was a former depot for the Willard Storage Battery Co. (There were many industries in this working-class area because it was criss-crossed by rail lines).
As soon as the city bought the land, Campbell Park was set up for summer field sports and winter outdoor skating, on a natural-ice rink. The first compressor-cooled rink and field house were probably built sometime in the 1960’s. The rink pad was replaced in 2001, but the field house, a homely rectangular block-and-bricks building, remained unchanged except for the addition of one large front window in the change room, facing the street, and one smaller window in the office, facing the park.
From the early 1990s to around 2005, Campbell Rink had not only neighbourhood skaters but also a good deal of drug-related commerce. The change room was sometimes locked for weeks at a time, to discourage the drug dealing and the fighting. But eventually someone would get hold of keys from some source, and then there would be an illegal winter clubhouse scene until neighbours noticed and called the police. Eventually an older city part-time staff was assigned there, to keep better order. He put in a little TV set and a pop cooler, and on rainy or snowy days, a few skater friends and some of the flying squad zamboni drivers used to join him in his cozy office (sometimes for much of their shift).
Tino said the Dufferin Rink staff could try to turn Campbell Rink around. The reclaiming of Campbell Rink was very different from Wallace Rink (chronicled earlier). Campbell Rink is tucked inside what was until recently a largely Portuguese neighborhood, far from any major streets with transit, and it’s a single pad. It was all shinny hockey all the time. Kids learned by hanging around the edges of adult shinny games – there was no time set aside exclusively for little kids. The sink-or-swim method resulted in excellent shinny skills, partly because so many of the players were each other’s cousins. They would look out for each other and help younger kids in a tough-love sort of way. Pleasure-skaters who wanted room to glide stood no chance, though, and as new people moved into the neighbourhood, they began to complain about the monoculture of fast, do-or-die shinny hockey.
The recreation staff started their changes off slowly. The TV was removed from the office, and small snacks and cookies were made available at the counter. In 2007, the staff organized the youth into an all-day shinny tournament with real referees, and it was a hit. Staff introduced a two-hour pleasure-skating time, with a campfire at the side of the rink, and they made donuts in a deep-fry pan right on the fire. The pleasure-skating time slot got only grudging acceptance until Michael Monastyrskyj, one of the older staff who lived around the corner from the rink, persuaded his colleagues to put on a DJ skate night. There was good music, free hot chocolate, and a campfire with meat roasted on a spit in the Portuguese style. That was a hit – more points for the staff.
The next year staff went through the Dufferin and Wallace skate-lending collection to get enough loaner skates, gloves, helmets, and hockey sticks for Campbell Rink. Some of the staff visited the surrounding schools and invited teachers to bring their classes – with free skate-lending and free hot chocolate. That worked, slowly at first. Campbell Rink had a bad reputation, and the city’s ice maintenance carried on being very intermittent. The city councillor was lobbied year after year by rink users (and by me) to help Campbell and Wallace Rinks get more ice maintenance. The ice maintenance gradually got better. Staff brought over a big pot and a hot plate to make hot chocolate, and a little fridge for cold drinks. They laid in a supply of pucks and hockey tape to sell at cost (or occasionally give away). They found a few tables and old stools, and with the money donated for food, they bought some chess and checker sets. A children’s corner was set up near the front window, with storybooks and paper and crayons. Young families started using the rink to spend both outdoor and indoor time with their kids – and that raised the general language level (everybody knows you don’t swear around little kids). As the rink began to diversify and flourish, the staff added some more food for hungry skaters – cookies and hot dogs and soup. Somebody donated a microwave.
But even the minimal food preparation made dirty dishes, and the staff began to feel uneasy about their many trips to the bathroom to fill up pots of water that would then be heated for dishwater on the hot plate. The office had not been set up as a food counter – what could be done to follow good health rules?
Then in the spring of 2011, the new Ward 18 City Councillor, Ana Bailao, gave Campbell Park a huge boost. She found some funds in the city budget to put in proper plumbing and wiring for the clubhouse office/kitchen/skate lending room. Rink friend David Rothberg donated funds to equip the kitchen and also to buy more skates.
On opening day the next season, Campbell Rink was full of shinny hockey players out on the ice. Inside, lead rink staff Marina DeLuca-Howard cooked macaroni and cheese in the new kitchen with plenty of help from the younger Campbell rink rats, who turned out to be avid cooks. Neighbours sat at the clubhouse tables and chatted over fair-trade coffee, and newcomers borrowed sticks and skates for their first-ever shinny hockey game. By early January, Marina and her colleagues and the rink kids began offering a Saturday Night Supper, and on the final Saturday of the month, the whole clubhouse was filled with tables and people enjoying their food. The kids served at the counter, and Councillor Bailao dropped in too.
I asked Councillor Bailao how much the wiring and plumbing had cost. She said she didn’t know the exact number – “a few thousand dollars.” Program staff for the whole rink season cost about $16,000 altogether. A version of the The familiar Mastercard ad might say – “having a neighbourhood rink clubhouse that’s warm and welcoming and OPEN, unlike the beautiful, deserted Queensway field house – priceless.” But it’s not priceless. It’s only cheaper – cheaper than building new state-of-the art recreation buildings and then having them sparsely used by private permits, or locked, as in our Etobicoke examples. Saving money that way is a waste of public funds: “penny wise but pound foolish.”
Meantime, over at Rosedale Rink, which is surrounded by large handsome mansions, the rink change area is cramped and windowless and there is not much conversation among neighbours. Instead of being welcomed by a community kitchen with friendly staff and shelves of loaner skates, skaters at Rosedale Rink are greeted by several large vending machines. If there’s a staff person at the rink, skaters can’t tell, because the office is at the back of the building with, no windows. Communication is done by signs giving various rules, including one making helmets mandatory for shinny hockey (pond hockey).
Toronto is a surprisingly upside-down city: people who live in mansions in Rosedale get less rink fun than people who live in basement flats across from the railway tracks. One thing is the same, though – few skaters wear helmets to play pond hockey, at either rink.
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Two letters and a memo: politics.