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