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Resurrecting the Dufferin Grove "ghost oven" went a lot better than we expected. In the Sept.1 group letter to Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR), I mentioned four specific problems. Three were resolved and the fourth can be worked on.
1.The everyone-welcome feel around the oven came back. Lots of neighbours (of all ages) got to reconnect, or to meet for the first time. The oven resumed its role as a community gathering place. Parks staff helped by unlocking some of the tables chained to tree trunks elsewhere in the park, so that six tables could be grouped near the oven.
2. Experimentation: We got many chances to try out using all the different levels of heat for thrifty food-making with fire – starting with make-your-own pizzas on market Thursdays using the active fire (Day One), to using the all the different stages of retained heat (no additional fire) in the four days that followed: roasting farmers’ market vegetables, baking beans, drying tomatoes, right down to the last dried apple rings on Day Four. Following public health rules around food safety was straightforward because of the existence of the cob kitchen. That outdoor kitchen was built with community labour in 2005, plus participation by the city’s Tech Services staff (plumbing and wiring in 2005, installation of an ample stainless steel four-sinks counter in 2015, a new prep counter in 2015, shingling in 2020 and again in 2022).
In public space, having 4-5 days of available cooking after only one fire makes sense environmentally. One-off pizza fires do not make nearly as much sense. Removing the permit fee made experimentation possible.
3. Competence: Both city recreation staff and community people learned to make clean, hot fires with little or no smoke after the first hour. There were no mishaps or injuries. On Oct.30 we were able to test wood conservation by making a “booster fire” on Sunday (Day Three) when the oven was still warm. To get the oven heat back up to pizza-making temperature, we only needed half the wood we used for a cold start. We also found out that neighborhood youth who were already keen cooks, when given the supervised chance to use the oven with friends, soon became competent at working with a wood oven.
4. Staff and community people collaborating – pulling together – was the hardest of the four problems to solve.
(a) We didn’t realize the extent of the Parks and Rec staff shortage. Part-time workers had to be brought in from Scarborough and North York. Their long commute, added to their minimum-wage pay, meant they were less than enthusiastic – no surprise – and made only superficial connections with the local neighbourhood people who came to take part.
(b) Some staff felt uneasy about fire, or about working outdoors when it got chilly.
(c) The only staff person with much experience in running the former Dufferin Grove oven community gatherings was prohibited from working because of the city’s position on vaccination status.
(d) At the start, we asked management for a baker who had experience in outdoor oven programs and could train the staff who were assigned. That required contracting a baker outside of existing city staff. External contracts are a very common Parks management practice but less common for Recreation. However, their management agreed, and that was a big help. (Even so, 7 weeks later the baker who was given the contract to run a one-day training session has still not been paid. Slow payment is not uncommon with the city, for contracts and even for paying their own part-time staff.)
A fifth issue that needs work is cost.
(a) City management decided to give the food for free, presumably out of a concern that staff or volunteers who handle cash could be tempted to steal. But many neighborhood people felt that free food is not a realistic approach to long-run collaboration. We tested voluntary donations at three pizza session. $2.50 per pizza brought in $234.30. We were able to supplement city rec staff as needed over the six weeks, for $240. The simple book-keeping is posted here on the dufferinpark oven web page. I’ve asked the recreation supervisor to release the breakdown of what the city spent helping to bring the oven back to life. Transparency makes things better.
(b) One staff for the pizza days would have been enough on slower days, but Recreation’s current approach seems to be that, for staff safety, city staff should never be working without another city staff right there -- even at a community oven. Is PFR scared of the community it works for?
(c) We found that two under-used staff paid minimum wage are less help than one skilled staff paid properly. If it’s especially busy, having 3-5 under-used staff plus a site supervisor doesn’t work as well as having two skilled staff working together with neighbourhood people.
When a conversation began about the city-wide community oven permit issue last August/September, opinion was divided on whether to ask for city staff support at all.
Some people felt that since PFR’s operating budget is close to half a billion dollars this year, resources for fostering community-building around existing public spaces, including ovens, must be part of that expenditure.
Others felt, equally strongly, that we should stay away from a PFR bureaucracy that has become too fragmented to do more than pull neighbourhood sociability down with it.
But when PFR’s one-size-fits-all oven permit rules led us to protest and to post the “ghost oven” sign, city management opened the door a crack and said they were listening. Is it worth trying to build on what followed?
Could there be warming winter snacks at a few ovens that are close to gathering places like outdoor rinks or toboggan runs? (e.g. Fairmount, or Sorauren, Scadding, Dufferin, Edithvale, Christie Pits?)
When the warmer weather returns in spring, could there be some travelling cooking/baking celebrations at farmers’ markets where oven champions can swap their knowledge? (e.g. Black Creek Farm, or Wychwood, Montgomery’s Inn, Evergreen Brickworks, Thorncliffe, Regent Park?)
The conversation about city ovens has already begun in bits and pieces. Now it needs to get a little bigger. Depending on interest, CELOS will host an "oven champion" lunch either in late November or mid-February. Or both. Oven champions who work for PFR will be welcome.
Dale Howey: I especially like the idea of operating the oven to provide snacks during skating hours. It would be a much fuller experience to expand a good skate with some warm food and drink in a nice setting. I forget which rink it was but it’s northeast of Leslieville and they had a lovely tall conifer decorated with lights in the middle of their oval. It was a charming location and snacks would have added to the appeal. I also think of the kitchen they installed at Sam Smith but which I have never seen open. I guess it may be rented for special events but don’t know if it ever has.