Battle brewing over school playground

Just how public is a public school playground? That’s the question currently being asked at Hillcrest Junior Public School, my old elementary school just south of St. Clair West on Bathurst.

Last April, the Principal locked one of the gates into the playground, attaching a sign reading “Private Property: No Trespassing.” The gate opened onto Nina Street near Bathurst, one of only two access points to the playground, basketball courts, soccer field and community centre. Meanwhile, the second entrance to the east at Hilton Ave was left open (see map).

With the Nina entrance locked, the well-used shortcut through the school yard is now gone, leaving the formerly well-used area mostly empty after school hours and throughout this last summer. Worse, local residents are concerned the sign is sending people away who are trying to use the community centre located within Hillcrest, wrongly thinking it’s closed.

While Hillcrest parents and the neighbourhood are sympathetic to having the gates locked during school hours, they are particularly upset by the impact of the sign and the sense that people west of Bathurst are getting treated unfairly. Not only do many people who use the community centre and pool programming get Hillcrest from Bathurst, but the Casa Loma neighbourhood to the east facing the open Hilton Ave. gate also happens to be the wealthiest of the surrounding neighbourhoods, giving off the sense that the playground and community centre is being tailored more to one community’s use over another.

Over the past months, neighbours of Hillcrest have been getting increasingly upset over the locked gate. With only a single access point, the empty schoolyard has become one big dead end, no longer used after dark except by teenagers. Things came to a head in June, when a 16-year-old kid was stabbed to death on Hilton Ave. after an altercation that the Toronto Star reported took place near the playground.

Since then, neighbours have passed around a petition to reopen the Nina gate, getting over 150 signatures on Father’s day. Planners with Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Ontario have also gotten involved to try to get the gate unlocked, but so far the Principal and TDSB in general remain unmoved.

Nina entrance (top) compared to the Hilton entrance (bottom)

It’s been said before that “municipalities don’t work well with school boards.” This seems to be the case at Hillcrest. With the current school trustee Josh Matlow leaving his position to run for City Council, he’s been hesitant to get involved, so instead the community turned to City Hall.  After hearing from the community, local councillor Joe Mihevc set up a stakeholders meeting in July in the hopes of resolving the issue, yet since the City has little power over TDSB-owned propery, he himself isn’t able to do much else.

At the closed door meeting in July, Molly Ladd-Taylor, one of the authors of the petition to reopen the Nina gate, presented her case to the Hillcrest Principal, members of the TDSB Safe Schools Committee, the local Superintendent, the school’s parent council co-chairs, the school’s caretaker, a TDSB rep from the neighbourhood and a few police. As of yet, nothing has come of the meeting and the gate remains closed.

To complicate matters further, the Hillcrest playground also happens to be the result of a massive community fundraising and construction campaign. Known as Hillcrest Playscape 2000, the design of the schoolyard was collectively chosen using the ideas and funds of the very people now petitioning to reopen the gate.

Envisioned as a “community hub,” many of those same community members and parents who built the playground see the locked gate as counter to the spirit of the project. Another meeting between the TDSB, Hillcrest stakeholders and the neighbours is set for later this month. But for the time being, the gate remains locked.

photos by Jake Schabas


  1. I’d like to say that “community hubs are only community hubs when they are vested in the City rather than the school board” but that would merely transfer it to the regime that runs Parks and Rec – not sure it would be an improvement.

    This is almost certainly an insurance/liability issue on TDSB’s side and unless someone can turn up some fundraising literature from the campaign mentioned it will be hard to force a reversal based solely on what is deemed the “spirit” of it.

    The Campaign for Public Education should be all of this because the public will be most invested in Public Education when its facilities are meshed with the community rather than walled off as solidly as if it were a private school.

  2. This sort of thing is so maddening, makes you want to move back to Smallville where people generally understand public places are for public use!

  3. I’m curious as to the rationale the school has for locking the gate, anyone care to explain?

  4. James Bell in Long Branch now locks a shortcut entrance from Marina Ave. during school hours. However, it’s open when school’s out. (Hmm, I should go check now that the new school year has started.)

    Cutting off walking routes isn’t likely to make anything “safer”.

  5. Locking the gate is the sort of anti-community initiative to addressing a problem I’d expect in suburbia or some small town. This sort of action has no place in a large and diverse city like this and those responsible should be fired immediately. Access to public spaces and amenities should be encouraged.

  6. What’s the rationale Hillcrest is using for keeping the gate closed? It kind of makes sense to close it during the school hours for safety reasons, but not after school. The outdoor basketball court at HIllcrest is the place where not just myself but many children and adults in the community grew up playing the game we love. Many adults still go. Kids should be allowed free, open, visible access to their community parks and playgrounds to encourage and develop healthy exercise habits and hobbies. With obesity, diabetes and a slew of other health issues plaguing our society, outdoor physical activity should be promoted and supported wherever possible. In my opinion, all schools should offer the use of their community centres and playgrounds to their respective neighbourhoods as much as possible.

  7. This is a great article but I would like to correct one small error: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Ontario has not been involved with the Hillcrest School gate at all, although their expertise would certainly be relevant to the resolution of the gate issue.

  8. Thanks for writing about this, Jake. I’m running for trustee in this ward and have spoken to Molly and other families upset by the playground closure, as well as Councillor Mihevc. If I’m elected I will find a solution to reopen the schoolyard to the community.

    Whatever the TDSB’s rationale (which remains unclear), locking that fence outside of school hours only makes the community less safe as the playground becomes a more desirable place for those that want their activities to remain out of sight. I also learned today that the school hasn’t had its outdoor lights on at night for the past number of evenings, making the premises that much less safe to walk.

    Bottom line: this is indicative of the TDSB’s entire approach to community use of schools. The Board needs to be a far better neighbour.

  9. What those responsible for locking the gate are forgetting is that Hillcrest is more than a school, it is a community centre. It is supposed to be a safe place for the whole community to enjoy, but the locking of the fence makes it more unsafe. 

    I used to work at Hillcrest as a lifeguard and walking to work there was always plenty of people of all ages in the school yard enjoying the space. The school has no right to block off the school yard to those who want to use it. It was built by the community for the entire community to use. 

  10. Great artical! You have done a very clear and wonderful job of identifying the concerns regarding the after school/weekend gate closure. Thanks, and hoping that your artical helps to open the gate back to a safer and more friendly community space.

  11. I am concerned that violent crime will increase as a result of the locked gate. When there were two entry/exit points to the school yard, I’m sure it was harder for any one or group to claim the yard as their territory for criminal activity and defend it. Now that there is only one entry/exit, it is easier to make the school yard a criminal territory and that means more dangerous weapons. I’m not a planner, but any woman knows to avoid dead end streets at night, and as Jake Schabas says, the TDSB has created a new dead end in our neighbourhood.

  12. Keeping those gates locked at all times will help to keep the undesirables out. Bathurst St. is an historical fault line, and most people realize that the undesirables are coming from west of Bathurst St.

  13. This is a very one-sided article. Not all Hillcrest neighbours are disappointed with the locked gate. I, for one, am quite pleased. The schoolyard and community centre are still perfectly accessible. By the way, there is another locked gate on Bathurst St. Why is there no discussion about it? And, who was using the park after dark anyway? Teenagers! And they are the ones who continue to use it after dark. My children and I still go over to the schoolyard all the time. The locked gate is a slight inconvenience – that’s it.

  14. I’m one of those “undesirables” from west of Bathurst St. I don’t see how making the kids, adults – and yes, teens too – from my side of the neighborhood unwelcome at the playground and community center makes anyone any safer.

    And yes, that fence is super-ugly.

  15. Great article Jake. I’d like to respond to Beatrice: there have always been teenagers in the schoolyard after dark, but safety should be a pressing concern since the stabbing in June. If pedestrians are unable to cut through the schoolyard, the teenagers who use it will not have any sense of a watchful neighborhood presence. I don’t believe there are any “undesirables”, from either side of Bathurst St., who should be discouraged from using the yard during the day. The issue is that locking the gate could create, as Jennifer said, a territory for undesirables after dark.

  16. What is it that makes someone an “undesirable”?

  17. Public school: private property. What’s wrong with this picture? This is a teachable moment: let’s use it for lessons about democratic decisionmaking, public space, cultural diversity, and community safety.

  18. With the Nina gate locked, I feel much safer with my children, when at the playground in the evening.

  19. Jane Jacobs, the great urban planner who lived in Toronto, promoted design that provides “eyes on the street” as a solution to safe and accessible and people friendly neighbourhoods.

    The locked gate at Nina Street produces exactly the opposite result by limiting access and observation and also sends a message of fear and exclusion to the children and everyone who uses the school, the community centre and the playground.

    Lights at night would also be a good idea.

  20. I am absolutely dumbfounded by the situation up at Hillcrest.

    Having worked on Playscape 2000 nearly from start to finish, and remembering vividly the unprecedented cooperation on the part of the TDSB, Parks & Rec, the trade unions, community partners like NaMeRes and the community, I find it staggering that the playground has been cut off in this way from reasonable community use.

    Evidently, the spirit in which this community space was created has been diluted over the 10 years since this remarkable one-of-a-kind build.

    I would hasten to remind people that the timing of Playscape 2000 coincided with another unilateral decision on the part of the TDSB. The playgrounds at a large number of schools across the city were razed as a knee-jerk reaction to concerns about possible lawsuits. The Playscape model was held out as an example to other schools as a way to rebuild, but I don’t believe it has ever been duplicated.

    If supervision of the school yard is at issue because of cutbacks to ed assistants and other staff, then, by all means secure the yard during school hours. On evenings and weekends, this space is part of MY community, WE built it, and its use should not be restricted in this manner.

    Public safety is the responsibility of everyone using the park and the appropriate authorities like the police and this gate does nothing to promote it.

  21. I was one of the small group of parents who wanted Hillcrest to have something better than the desolate expanse of asphalt, bare earth and a crumbling portable that was all the kids had before 2000. Through the determined efforts and persuasive talents of our committee we persuaded the TDSB, Parks & Recreation, the trades union and parents and students to build the playground.

    It is such a shame on our 10th anniversary of what was an unforgettable community moment that we’re facing such an unfortunate from those who would lock up what was once a jewel of community spirit.

  22. “With the Nina gate locked, I feel much safer with my children, when at the playground in the evening.”

    Feeling safer and being safer isn’t always the same thing.

    People feel their quiet suburban cul-de-sac is safer then Queen St, which is busy day and night, but the Jane Jacobs “eyes on the street” idea suggests Queen St is the safer place.

  23. I was a student at Hillcrest when the playground was built and I have
    fond memories of it being a safe community meeting place. The
    neighborhood and the playground always felt safe because of pedestrian
    traffic at all hours and now the playground has become off limits at night.
    Because it is no longer used as a walk way, it must feel frightening for
    kids. The gate has been locked for a relatively short period of time and
    I can only imagine how leaving the gate locked will change the
    playground and the community.
    I think it’s sad that children are being taught to be frightened of
    people living west of Bathurst, they are part of the Hillcrest community
    and have just as much right to use the community space.

  24. Jane Jacobs, the arrogant woman who wanted Royal St. George’s College ejected from the Annex. What a good Protestant she was.

  25. I’ll admit that it’s a minor inconvenience to walk around the corner to enter the playground, but having the gate closed helps keep balls from flying out onto the street, which is kind of a good thing. Many cars in the area are not abiding by the speed limit.

  26. There is a sign on the gate that says something like WELCOME to our safe school. Please enter via Hilton Avenue. Everyone in the community is welcome to use the playground – west of Bathurst or not.

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