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At the City's Best Park, a Fight to Keep a Good Thing
Dufferin Grove Park is a park like no other. Can it survive encroaching bureaucracy?

At Dufferin Grove Park, there are signs on the playground snack bar that say “There are not enough city staff workers to run the playground caf today.” And, lest anyone jump to the wrong conclusion, they add a caveat: “This problem is UNRELATED to Mayor Ford.” The snack bar is more than just a snack bar: It’s part of a renowned 17-year old experiment in having a neighbourhood run its own public space, bringing the park to life on a shoestring budget raised, in large part, by selling food. Now, however, the project is in trouble: The city is taking over the park’s programs, and community leaders – while not opposed to the takeover itself – say the park is suffocating in the city’s bureaucratic tangle. Jutta Mason, a Jane Jacobs Prize-winning organizer and one of the driving forces behind Dufferin Grove, says the park is suddenly short-staffed because the city’s parks management is trying to run it like any other park, which has increased the cost of management and decreased wages. With the caf’s opening hours reduced, the park is losing money to fund community-run programs in the park. Mason fears more will go soon. “They just decided, at some fairly high level, that they were going to bring this place in line with their very paperwork-heavy, hierarchical structures,” says Mason. “That’s just not how this place has ever worked, it’s too busy.” The park is certainly busy on a bright Thursday afternoon, during the farmers’ market. People crowd the hillside in the shadow of the rink house and surrounding trees. Across the park, families gather around the main campfire pit; kids are playing in the wading pool. Since 1993, the park’s programs have been run as a joint venture between the city and Mason’s community group, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space, or CELOS. The group pushed the boundaries of what can be done in a city park, whether it be the open fire-pit, two wood-burning outdoor ovens or the dozens of scheduled and unscheduled activities that make use of them. At the skating rink, they literally removed boundaries-taking out walls (without the city’s permission) to open up the space around the rink and make it easier for families to gather. The programming ideas all come from neighbours and community surveys. Local ward councillor Ana Bailo calls it “a community centre without walls.” CELOS provides staff for some of the programming in the park and raises money by selling food at various venues – some $30,000 in 2010. (Selling food in a park was once frowned upon.) However, the city is trying to fold the operations of Dufferin Grove into the regular functions of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. In the process, Mason says, the city is closing the exceptions to its rules that have allowed Dufferin Grove to flourish. Having a non-city-run group providing services is itself an exception. The “irregular” services that CELOS provides may be lost, Mason says, including the logistical support for the farmers’ market, Friday night suppers, pizza and heritage food days at the wood-burning oven and maybe even the skate rental service. In the past year, the parks department has restructured the management of the park. It has solidified the barriers between roles and looked into the how CELOS and parks staff work together. The result has been greater restrictions on who can perform what jobs at the park and increased costs. Mason says this is why the snack bar has closed and worries it’s a sign of things to come. Mason welcomes the city taking over the money from food sales, she says CELOS’s primary aim is research, but management is bungling the transition. But the ward councillor says it’s a reality the group needs to work with “Jutta gets very frustrated with the bureaucracy,” says Bailo. “But we need it, because of the times that we’re living, it’s more important than ever,” As the city hunts for savings, money needs to be accounted for, the councillor says. “If we’re going to have CELOS staff working-taking care of some programs-we need to formalize it. We need people to understand CELOS responsibility and roles.” Bailo says she’s working with parks management to try to preserve the Dufferin Grove’s successes. She’s working to reverse the decision to synch the park up to the citywide labour code, which determines who gets paid for what work. Parks management did not respond to multiple interview and information requests. Mason is widely considered to be a bit of an expert at twisting the bureaucracy’s arm, but still, she thinks this is “the last battle.” For the past month, she’s been writing an online eulogy of sorts for Dufferin Grove. She’s chronicled the slow and steady growth of “anomalies,” the things that have made the park special. “My idea is to put it out there so that it can be stashed somewhere so that when people, later on, come across it, they go: Oh, let’s try that again or let’s continue on from there.” Photo: Matt O’Sullivan

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