In this special series, Park People explores the people who make up the Park Friends movement. Each month, we will ask one park volunteer to share with us what inspires them to give their time and energy to city parks. This month, we talk to Jutta Mason, a community activist and what many have referred to as the “soul of Dufferin Grove park.” 

How Did your Involvement with Parks Begin?

I was born in Germany and came to Toronto at 9 years old. Germans of my generation were profoundly molded by the Second World War. I was born when memories of the Holocaust were fresh. Because of that, it was a personal project for me to help more neighbours get to know each other.  Any public place that doesn’t have walls is a place where a diverse range of people can make friends or at least become familiar with each other, to have a chance to build longer-lasting loyalties. To me, and to many people of my generation, this was seen as a way to prevent atrocities like the Holocaust.

The second answer is that Nils Christie wrote an influential article called Conflicts as Property that was published in the British Journal of Criminology. Christie says that says it’s much better for community members to work out their conflicts locally than to move the conflicts away into the courts.Working together on differences is key to forming stronger bonds.

Around Dufferin Grove in the 1980’s, people wanted to bring the police into the community to stop things like littering and prostitution. I liked the idea that conflict could bring people together. What Christie says is that a community is not a perfect fairy tale. But, if neighbours can work to solve problems among ourselves, we emerge as a stronger community. I believe in that approach.

When we started the bake oven at Dufferin Grove, we intentionally put it beside the basketball court. We brought different kinds of people into close proximity.It created a kind of familiarity, sometimes also conflict, that helped people understand each other more.

What Makes Parks Better?

The biggest things you need are:

  1. Places to sit
  2. Places to go to the bathroom and
  3. Places to throw trash.

Beyond that, you have to have a diversity of features. At Dufferin Grove, you’ve got an unofficial skate park, a basketball court, an inground checkerboard, a bake oven, a theatre company. To get these things in a park, you need to remove bureaucratic blocks and silos.

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What’s Your Dream for this Park?

My dream would be for a Dufferin Grove conservancy to be tried out. It would be a partnership between the park users and city staff, not unlike some aspects of the Central Park Conservancy –but built on what was started at Dufferin Grove– aToronto-style conservancy.

What’s Been Your Biggest Triumph?

The sandpit! It’s so simple really. Kids dig and get totally muddy.The sand pit is not run by adults, but it has to be monitored by adults. I used to say to parents: “Bring a book, your kids won’t want to leave.”

It’s an amazing social hub. It’s where people get to know each other. A lot of people have told me that’s where they first made friends at Dufferin Grove.

Now they have their phones, which kinda shrinks the whole dynamic.

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What’s the Craziest Thing That’s Ever Happened?

One time someone persuaded us that they should hold a wrestling event in the rink. Things got bloody. At first, we were excited about holding a different kind of event. It was allowed to run its course, but afterwards, I think everyone agreed that didn’t need to do that again.

There are a fair number of people who believe that the craziest thing is what goes on all the time at Dufferin Grove: we have campfires and kids using real metal shovels in the sandpit.

What Advice Would You Give?

“Don’t tell fairy tales.” People want to tell fairy tales about other places.

Jane Jacobs said “be in a place. Spend some time there, and then spend some more time there, before you come up with a theory about it.”

If you spend time in a place, the place will tell you its story about what it needs to be more of what it could be. If you have down time, go be in a place. That can be an amazing gift.

P.S. To be in a place, you need to get off your phone.