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A Manual for Running Compressor-Cooled Outdoor Rinks Really Well. Read more>>

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wood stove at Dufferin

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Winter Story

The making and unmaking of Dufferin Grove Park.

A summer serial, continuing through the fall and winter, January 5, 2012, Chapter Twenty-four

By: Jutta Mason

Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things that don’t fit the city’s policies, says the current management of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR). According to a staff report obtained through Freedom of Information, the way the park is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” From May to November of 2011, PFR management put a lot of effort into making an inventory of the “anomalies” of Dufferin Grove Park and trying to make them fit in better. Despite this effort, many of the anomalies have not yet disappeared.

In the final third of this serialized Summer/Fall/Winter story, I’ll describe a different inventory project, carried out in a broader spirit, using the womanly metaphor of what’s in the pantry. In a pantry, every item matters, and could conceivably be of use. A person tidying the pantry has to look carefully, sorting through supplies to find items hidden at the back of the shelves which could be recycled or repurposed. When money is limited, the person with an eye to the pantry can turn to making the best, thriftiest, most ingenious use of what’s already on the shelves. The point here is not homogeneity, but ingenuity – and diverse uses of existing resources.

Toronto’s parks, with their field houses, outdoor rinks, playgrounds, sports fields, natural ravines, and (at least potential) gathering places, are like well-filled pantries with a lot of items hidden at the back. Making good use of what’s in each of these pantries needs a lot of different people to attend to each individual location, and it can’t be done through central control.

This broader inventory project began in 2002 with the outdoor rinks. A bit of history, first: how did Toronto come to have 51 compressor-cooled outdoor rinks, many more than there are in any other city, anywhere? 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 dozens of them.

So why was Toronto not satisfied with natural ice rinks? Maybe the microclimate around the city made the natural ice season even 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 – showing that the City government suffered from a lack of imagination and enterprise back then too. For at least thirty winters after the first compressor-cooled outdoor rinks were built, Toronto operated a parallel system, with both natural and compressor-cooled 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 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 improvement 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 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 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 started off gradually with a few 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 of questionable employment records. In 1999, the PFR 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 a known rink enthusiast) at home in March 2003 to warn me. He said that the consultant’s final report didn’t match PFR’s “rinks should be shut down” agenda; it 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 clear across town coming to skate there. 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. More inventory, of the best kind! We knew this was wonderful news, but even so, 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 didn’t fit at all, then. The fox in the henhouse was more accurate. There was a public outcry, accompanied by e-mails and newspaper articles. The just-elected new mayor 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. No one in management was interested in the outcomes of our approach.

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.

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, contractless.

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. (Scarborough was not a factor, since it had only one compressor rink outdoors, in its civic square; all the others were indoor arenas.) Both Etobicoke and North York outdoor rinks were mainly single pads. The ones with hockey boards were 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 the main outdoor civic rink (the only one with a double pad) kept the front doors of the change room locked even though the bus stopped right outside the doors. Skaters getting off the bus had to walk through the 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 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 PFR 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, 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, their field houses are locked in winter, 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 externally imposed rules or restrictive timetables, there is 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 a 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 manger 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 that the city doesn’t have. 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 at 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 pantry 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 councilors 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. We posted graphs about weather, temperature, and ice-making on the website, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt (in our view, anyway) that keeping eight rinks open into the middle of March – the plan for that year – was a mistake. But at city hall the right-leaning councilors were in favour of extending the season for all rinks. They squared off against the left-leaning councilors, who spoke in favour of only eight rinks, to save money. The rinks were back in the news again as the councilors 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 for the councillors. And our group of outdoor rink friends had to turn away and keep steering our own course: back to our inventory, and how to make best use of it. For next week: using what we have now to turn more rinks into community centres.

Winter Story (2012) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), www.celos.ca.

Illustrations by Jane LowBeer


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