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The remaking of Toronto parks.
A summer serial, continuing through the fall and winter, January 19, 2012, Chapter Twenty-five
By: Jutta Mason
Recap: According to a Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR) staff report obtained through Freedom of Information, for a park to run the way Dufferin Grove Park does 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 “anomalies” inventory of Dufferin Grove Park and trying to make the anomalies 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.
The subject of this chapter is using what we have now to turn more outdoor rinks into winter neighbourhood community centres. I want to tell the story of Wallace Rink, as my example.
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-players’ 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. The panels never worked for one minute, according to then-Parks Commissioner Herb Pirk (who didn’t agree with the design either). 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 always held: the dungeon. There were no other windows. Instead there were 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 west 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 beebe 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 beebe 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 an unobstructed view out to the rink and light. 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 minor in the same way that Etobicoke’s unsupervised tennis court rinks without any hockey boards are counted as minor, 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 only 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 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 the long green metal rink shovels got a lot of use. More rink users learned how to clean the rink the old-fashioned way, skating behind the 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 staff laid the thick, heavy black rink hoses across the ice, dragged the water down to the end of the rink and guided 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 PFR 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 three or 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 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 staff 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? Surely not.
She did. City carpenters and plumbers and electricians came to the rinks, asked the recreation staff for sketches, and 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. Can the motto be employed everywhere? It’s too soon to know.
By contrast: Queensway Park in Etobicoke has a baseball diamond, an outdoor rink, and two field houses. Both have been locked almost all winter. The newer field house was built three years ago, for almost $1.5 million. It’s meant to replace the old field house, but not for another three years. In the meantime, neither building is a winter clubhouse for the neighborhood. How can Toronto afford to construct such costly buildings and not use them? Keeping our park buildings unused is “penny wise and pound foolish.” Neighbourhoods taking them over, with direct, ongoing help from city workers, is a thrifty, interesting way to use what’s in the pantry.
Next week’s chapter will be about Campbell Rink, and its continually expanding usefulness to its neighbourhood. The question I want to look at is: how will a neighbourhood that truly uses its park, relate to being locked out, sometime after February 3?
Winter Story (2012) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer