I attended a meeting at McCormick Community Centre in early January because I was interested in finding out more about the Friends of McCormick Park. I had come to these meetings a few years ago when FOMP began, but fell off going because it was just too difficult to make it at a time when my young kids needed to get to bed. I still received the email invitations though, and was curious about the first point of the agenda for this particular meeting: “McCormick Park narrative: How do we tell the story of FOMP and its initiatives?”
I thought who better to tell the story than the Friends themselves? I wanted to go to the meeting, record it, and let the members’ conversation reveal the story.
The discussion proved to be a wonderful way to document what the friends of McCormick have done and then to use this narrative or document as a resource for further community action. While the discussion meaders (as discussions do) through different ideas about the park and the history of the park, it clearly shows the passion of our local park group.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed)
Nicholas Gallant (thoughtful representative of Ana Bailao’s office)
Jennifer Tibbitt (Bank Street gardener, mom)
Heather Maciel (young and friendly Aangen Cafe employee)
Adriana Beemans (new mother, expert grant writer, lives on Gordon Ave.)
Joe Pauker (writer from Middleton Street, father of 2)
Jen Cypher (a spark, a professor who lives on Brock Ave)
Karen Falkenberg (Brock Ave artist, mother, baker, event planner)
Fung Lee (Designer, mother of 2, lives on Dundas, latecomer)
Maria Brum (First timer to a FOMP meeting, but 40 years in the hood, a connection with the past and non-English speaking members of the community)
Jason Bomers (me)
Karen: So, what’s our narrative?
Jen Cypher: One of the things that concerns me, not in a worried way, but in a way that I want people to be thinking about, is why are we doing this and who is this for? Is this for us? Is this for posterity? And why? Is it because someone asked us? Is it because we are we trying to refocus? Or are we trying to look at where we’ve come from.
Jennifer Tibbit: Are you talking about the narrative?
Jen Cypher: Yes, I’m talking about producing a kind of narrative about FOMP.
Adriana Beemans: As someone coming in new to Friends of McCormick Park, I feel that it would have been helpful to know something about the history, the context, and the culture of the group. I don’t necessarily mean a mission statement, but a document with a narrative that gives a sense of what people are walking into. I also thought it would be helpful to identify, as we get more formalized, the key specific activities that we’re trying to put into place. If we can get a document or conversation about three things what we want to do over the next year, then it’s easier to pull people out to volunteer because you can ask them what initiative they want to be a part of.
Nick: I think part of the reason I’m interested in doing this is that it’s a chronicle of things past for anybody who’s interested and it also provides that public record. Public record in the case of groups like this is really important to show partly where you’ve come from, so people can tap in whenever they want to. On the other hand, it also has a dangerous side; if you write too much of the story and people feel like they haven’t experienced that, they may not want to jump into it. What I hope for from this effort is that it’s seen as an open narrative. While there certainly are things which have happened in the past, what we want is for people to come in and plug into something that is already flowing and they have their resources there to plug into. My key consideration when thinking about this is how can we create it but keep it open and influenceable by multiple parties around the community and in that way, keep it more democratic.
Jen Cypher: I think a narrative, especially one that is a multi-voiced one like you are talking about can help us be more transparent too, which is something I’ve always wanted to be here. It’s difficult because it’s based on a meeting structure and based on actions. We try to keep the meetings to a minimum and “do stuff.” It’s harder to be transparent and open and have a record if you’re not keeping one because you’re trying to “do stuff.” Doing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to write down the notes of what you did. So a narrative might help with that. It would also discourage people from trying to reinvent the wheel by including in the document, for example, a little history about how to conduct a bake sale.
Nick: That’s another really good point. When people want to look for examples of how to run a great park group, one of the places where they look is the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park. A lot of we see happening in this community is people asking “How is this different from Dufferin Grove?” That’s one of the things that the Dufferin Grove example did amazingly well. Just today I pulled information about the grants they got to put in their own community kitchen – the Zamboni Cafe, several years back. Having those resources readily available at their fingertips can provide a good example for people locally, but also for people around the world. In our case it’s a new story; we’re working in a different place than the friends of Dufferin Grove in the early 1990s. It’s a very different city now. I think there is a lot of opportunity to use the narrative as a means to shape city policy. If we notice certain themes written throughout that policy, and we think “Why does it have to be like that?” it doesn’t. It doesn’t. There are avenues to change that. That’s another one of my hopes for our park.
Jennifer Tibbit: That’s what I’ve seen Jutta Mason (from Friends of Dufferin Grove) write about a lot. I think what Jutta Mason has done is really positive but other people don’t always agree with her. She gets a lot of flack. She’s always asking questions. Why do you have to do it like that? Because you’ve always done it like that – or because these are the rules. But I also think for our group, there are lots of little things we’ve done, the bollard fight, the bulletin board, the safety walk, that we forget about and it adds up. It’s the power of a community group when they wouldn’t listen to our individual complaints. Doing that work as a group is a big deal.
Jen Cypher: There is no problem too small!
Jennifer Tibbitt: Nothing ever happened, nothing changed when it was only my whining about it, but as a group, as FOMP, it really did get a response. I really saw it. I think that’s important too, as well as the festivals and the cafe.
Adriana: I think one of the things that impressed me with this group is the action-oriented versus the meeting-oriented. Also when asking how the festival was funded, I learned it all happened voluntarily and with in-kind donations. I think that it would be amazing to have the narrative capture that spirit of volunteerism and of civil society. This is an amazing volunteer- based community group. That’s a really powerful thing to happen for the city as they are talking more about local volunteerism and park stewards. New parks planning is going through their own culture change shift right now and this is going to be a really good example. I would be fascinated for the narrative to find out why people joined and how long they have been in the group because I’m a newer member. I would love to hear what another member’s favourite thing was or what another member accomplished.
Maria: Sorry, I just wanted to ask and I know I’m just now coming in … in terms of the narrative or the history of it… Is the objective about the history of this group or is it about the community and the history of the park? How far back do you go? There is a lot of history that happened in this park before this group.
Karen: I think we’re talking about Friends of McCormick and what we’re doing now and not the park history.
Joe: One of the things we’ve talked about since the beginning is finding out more about the park. Some of that comes from when we work together, and when we meet other people in the community to do other projects, we do learn about the history of the park.
Jason: I think that the history of the park is fascinating, whether it’s the history of what’s happening here with the Friends of McCormick or the larger history of the park.
Maria: Personally as someone who’s lived here all my life and chosen to stay here, I think it has a great history with very positive moments, and then there is some history which is not so positive; however, that was just the nature of the culture of that time. Especially if you talk to people my age, and you say the “McCormick Boys,” to those of us who lived here, we know exactly what that meant: the rumbles and switchblades and knives. Today of course, it can mean an entirely different thing. There are pros and cons to the park. But the park, for me, it puts a smile on my face, because it was a park used so much by the community.
Joe: I heard a great story second or third-hand that someone told me last weekend. He was saying when he was a kid at one point the train stopped on the tracks and it was full of watermelons. Someone broke into it at night and the whole neighbourhood was eating watermelons the next day. They asked “Do you know who did it?” and everyone is like (puffs out cheeks and shakes his head).
Maria: I’d like to share a personal story about the diamond here at the park. At least once or twice a month on Friday nights, people would come to watch black and white movies. It was one of the biggest community gatherings, even Dufferin Grove has not come close to it. It was not the kind of movie that would exclude people because many people in the community did not speak English. We had the old and the young and the new and wheelchairs and strollers. People brought their lawn chairs. That whole park would be full of people coming to watch Laurel and Hardy, because it was something universal; it didn’t matter if you knew English or not. It’s one of my fondest memories. Whenever I talk to anyone that’s still in the neighbourhood or has moved away and I say “Do you remember when we used to have the movies on friday?” they say “Oh yeah!” A whole discussion breaks out with big smiles about that. If I had a magic wand and a wish, that’s what I’d like to see. It was such a beautiful memory because it wasn’t just the young people coming out. It was everyone.
Jen Cypher: They do that at Shirley Street…There are lots of resources in the neighbourhood. It wouldn’t be that hard.
Nick: That’s what I’m talking about. You can tell the stories of the past but we’re building a present story. It’s also a great point about precedent. Movie nights in parks… you don’t want to take out a big permit, you just want to make it happen…
Heather: The cafe can sell popcorn!
Karen: Well you know, when we were putting together the festival, I found that it was pretty easy to bring it together because the park is so special to the community. That’s what I think is important to people about the park. It’s how it connects people and makes a stronger community. When I moved to the community, that’s where I met people, in the park. For myself in the narrative, I’m interested in doing are things that promote that culture of connection with the community.
Nick: Can we talk about broad brush stroke themes that we want to incorporate? That way each of us can start spinning our heads around these themes and ideas. Like the park as a community connector. That’s a key theme in the story and can be woven throughout.
Karen: And that the park is equal access and everything is free. So it doesn’t matter how much things cost or what is your family income. Everybody can come to the park; it’s a place for everyone…and there is no judgement…
Nick: So it’s an opportunity to reinforce values that we hold dear. If we say we want it to be an open, accessible, connective space for the community and we keep on saying that through the stories that we tell, it will stay that way.
Jen Cypher: The things we do enhance and foster that.
Adriana: Building on what you said, for my partner and me, public spaces are big. They are a common asset and something that you can share among strangers. We see it as an extended living room or backyard. Had I known about it, I would have celebrated my kid’s birthday in the summer, so I could have used the park! For us, it’s a huge common resource. People are always talking about gentrification. What’s so special about this neighbourhood and this park is that there is such a range of people that have lived here and continue to choose to live here. There are a lot of Portuguese cafes, bars, and bakeries along Dundas that are not catering to us but that are successful and vibrant. I think what was very powerful to me when I became a mom and felt like I could hang out in the park more, is that it felt like a counter-weight to gentrification. As long as we have places where people from different incomes and classes and backgrounds actually interact and engage, then I think that is how we are able to counter the influences of gentrification. It’s not an us vs. them situation. We’re all in the park and our kids are all playing together. I remember when the neighbourhood had a massive influx of Roma refugees and I would be sitting in the park and talking to Roma mothers…. it was such a rare and powerful moment for me. I really enjoyed doing that during my summer on maternity leave.
Maria: I like what you said about us vs. them. I hope it doesn’t become a place where it’s like that because that has been my experience at Dufferin Grove. I think that what we have here is great. I’ve been back to the park myself to use neutral space to read or to breathe . I hope that it doesn’t get to the point where we’re excluding people in the community. I really hope that the group stays in this format…
Karen: What you were saying about transparency I think is very important because there is this sense that when you tell people about this group they believe that it’s a secret clique. That’s the perception!
Maria: That was my perception when I came here tonight …
Karen: We should make sure everyone knows that our meetings are the first Tuesday of the month and that anyone is welcome. We should have a sign on the community board listing those dates. Something that makes it more open.
Maria: I find that, as someone who uses the centre, I look at that board all the time just to catch up. That’s how I found out that this group existed.
Jason: I think people in the neighbourhood need to realize that with this group, it’s just your neighbour who decided to have a bake sale to improve the park. It’s not coming from the city; it’s coming from the people in the hood.
Jen Cypher: I would like that story to be told. For me this is very political! This is activism to me. This isn’t just community engagement. This is community activism right across the street from my house. If it didn’t have that aspect to it, then I wouldn’t do it. That story needs to be told. People need to be encouraged to do it! To just freakin’ do it. People ask, “Can I do that in the park?” and I say “Yes, do it!” Not just reclaim it. Claim it. It’s not a reclamation; it is already yours. You want to participate in a garage sale in the park, just do it! No one is going to tell you no. The by-law officer is not going to come along.
Someone: What by-law officer?
Jen Cypher: Exactly! I think that’s another reason this story needs to be told because people need to be encouraged to do what they want in this public space. I think people want to, but they think that they can’t.
Maria: About coming here tonight, I debated with myself for 2 hours, should I go or should I not. There are preconceptions … I wanted to come and try to talk about accessibility in the park. I think it’s important to empower those who have been here a long time, like myself and say, “Come back, it’s okay.” It’s okay to reclaim your park. It doesn’t matter if you’re 60, get to know the new people moving in. But it’s hard …
Fung: It’s intimidating and there is cynicism.
Maria: There is cynicism and there are a lot of misconceptions too. Some of it is true and some of it is not about people moving into the neighbourhood and being pushy and not respecting the history and respecting that people have cleaned up the community. But you just have to come and do it and take your chances in life.
Adriana: I like what you said about activism. We always talk about living local. We shop local. We don’t have a car. Part of being in the park is living local. We’ve only been here a short time, and I talked to a friend who asked me, “Who do you know in the neighbourhood?” and I felt happy about knowing a lot of people. So I think that’s part of that activism, investing in your neighbourhood and making it better. From a city councillor perspective, one of the things I’ve learned from FOMP is that if you want your city councillor to listen to you, he or she will listen to you. Watching Nick work behind the scenes and doing this work but also knowing the vision that we have for the park can be implemented because we have the councillor’s ear: that’s a really powerful role that any citizen can take up. Being a part of the park group is a part of your citizenship.
(phone rings, disrupts conversation)