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For a heady week in April 1913, Torontonians found themselves in a citywide learning moment about the virtues of the supervised playground — at the time, a novelty in Toronto and almost all other large North American cities.
A Riverdale community outreach group called the Evangelia Settlement House had invited delegates from a Chicago playground workers’ association to offer advice about how to manage these new public spaces that teemed with children, many of them from poor or immigrant families.
Then, in public schools across the downtown, Evangelia ran a series of public lectures about related topics such as folk games, health and play, playground apparatus and the role these amenities served in battling the scourge of slums.
But the culminating event was a series of public appearances in Toronto by the renowned New York urban reformer Jacob Riis, a one-time police reporter who had alerted affluent Gotham to the crowded and desperately poor slums of the Lower East Side in his 1890 bestseller, How the Other Half Lives. The book didn’t just report on living conditions; it also included Riis’s stark and shocking photos.
As intended, the Other Half served as a wake-up call, prompting Theodore Roosevelt, then New York City’s police commissioner, to enlist Riis in a campaign to build supervised, well-equipped playgrounds in tenement districts populated by tens of thousands of poor newcomers. The goal: Providing immigrant children, but especially boys, with an alternative to a life of juvenile delinquency and then crime, which is how progressive playground advocates framed their cause.
By the time Riis arrived in Toronto, he had become known as “Gotham’s most expensive man” because his adopted causes invariably meant increased spending on the part of municipal governments known for their corruption and inefficiency.
A New York playground advocacy group had been formed in 1891 and went on to set up experimental playgrounds in a few locations around Manhattan. The city’s first supervised playground, in Seward Park, opened in 1903, on the Lower East Side. It had a track, sand box, gymnastic equipment and gardens which attracted thousands of children. (The original urban playground opened in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1887, but Seward was the first operated by a municipality.)
In Toronto, J.J. Kelso, a reporter and urban reformer very much in the Riis mould, established the Toronto Playground Association in 1908, with a mandate to work with the city’s parks commissioner to build “play centres.” (Kelso also founded the Toronto Star’s Fresh Air Fund initiative.) Parks with manicured public gardens did exist at the time, but they offered nothing for children.
The Toronto Playground Association scored a few early victories, including a model playground at the Canadian National Exhibition and a $ 25,000 donation towards the purchase of property from Edmund Osler, a businessman and politician who chaired the Evangelia board. But the city’s attempts to expropriate land proved more costly than expected, delaying new parks such as Osler playground, near Dovercourt Rd. and Dundas St. W., and the Elizabeth St. playground, north of Dundas St. W. in The Ward, a crowded immigrant-receiving area considered by city officials to be slumlike.
Editorialists, in turn, flayed council for its parsimoniousness and warned that Toronto was falling behind the American cities making such investments. A century before Buzzfeed’s listicles, in fact, the Globe and Mail published an article itemizing 10 reasons for supervised playgrounds (No. 8: “people who play together will find it easier to work together”).
By 1912, playgrounds finally opened and immediately attracted large crowds. That year, Dr. Charles Hastings, Toronto’s crusading medical officer of health, ran into Riis at a conference in Philadelphia, setting in motion a bid to bring Riis here to whip up public and political interest for dedicating more resources to these spaces.
In an interview with the Star during his visit, Riis revealed that as a young man, he’d regularly pass through Toronto on his way to a fishing cabin on the Magnetawan River, near Georgian Bay. Those trips, he said, “were a great relief after the heat and dust of New York.”
Riis, by then in his mid-60s, recounted in his speech to the Canadian Club how, in 1900, he’d begun lobbying the New York City Board of Education to establish playgrounds at schools in order to give boys a place to blow off steam after lessons (much of the debate about playgrounds at the time focused on boys).
As of 1913, however, New York had found religion on the subject. In the intervening years, it had established 222 supervised and equipped playgrounds, and Riis said he expected that figure to double within five years. The imperative to act came from the moral urgency articulated by Riis and others.
“The boy without a playground,” as he said in his speech, “is the father of a man without a job.” The young “seek bad pleasures very largely because the good ones are denied them,” Riis said.
Whether it was Riis’s visit that proved to be the catalyst or pressure from activists such as Kelso, Toronto politicians did begin to get their heads around the idea that managing these spaces represented a legitimate role for municipal government. In 1914, eight new playgrounds opened, expanding to 11 by 1915; by 1918, the city’s parks commissioner was asking for millions to create more parks and 20 additional playgrounds. The Toronto Playgrounds Association had merged with the parks department, which began hiring young men and women as supervisors, all of them tasked with overseeing activities ranging from folk dancing to sewing and various sports. As Riis predicted, the campaign found a receptive audience.
As one young supervisor said of the Elizabeth St. playground, the children — many of them from the Jewish families that then lived in The Ward — were “so enthusiastic.”
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