Parks and Recreation

An Essay by Priya Chahal

Audio Transcription

Once upon a time six years ago I moved close to Butterfield Park. Moving around Toronto brought me to this intersection of university and community life. Students playing hacky-sack in the centre circle, local friends and families out for picnics or walks. The remodelling of the park created a home for four-legged friends to roam and play in the dog park. Cyclists swerving past evening walkers who were tip-toeing around the once-present spiralling labyrinth on the ground. I found special spots to sit and gaze at the moon at night while walking an adventurous bulldog with snorts and curious sniffs. All seasons presented life in this park, and overtime the phrase “Toronto: A Changing City” came to life in front of my eyes.

When the pandemic hit us last year in March, that park transitioned. At first, the walks through the park were eerie, garbage bins filling up with piles of trash, you could see the tumble-weed of masks tossing through the air. No one in sight. I went out to let my dog do his business, while I inhaled fresh air as if I left Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in real time. The first step outside, I imagined a dystopian world with the lockdown sounding unbelievable. Quiet streets, wind loudly swirling in my ears, the tufts of my hair brushing against my face reminding me that the world shifted. Almost as if there was a fire that blinded us from the impact of community, this silence surrounding me indicated a loud worldly need for solidarity.

As the months went by, the friends I grew a relationship with were sheltering folks in the corner of the park where my dog and I used to throw around a ball. The numbers increased, one tent after another, and I began to learn names, bring lunches, supplies, anything that I could to show them “I see you.” The surrounding neighbourhood folks began to find comfort in socially distanced park hang outs as the lockdown days went on. Birthday parties, beers and wine. Food for picnics, and exercise groups. One-man dance shows. People were seeking out connection when we needed to isolate for survival. This park redefined itself as a dichotomy between life and livelihood.

The visits to that park darkened for me as the encampments of houseless folks remained, whispers throughout the park of lack of social services and government assistance travelled to my ears coming from the mouths of Milwaukee beer can sippers. Two worlds: people gathering for a home, and people gathering to leave their home. The park designed for playfulness, turned into one that contrasted privilege. Walks with my dogs turned into dodging waste, both of those who lived there and those who visited. One particular morning at 6:00 A.M., I needed to leave my residence because this isolation impacted my mental health, so I took my dogs leash and went off like usual. I saw the silhouette of a man with a trash picker and a plastic bag, and I observed him pick up empty cans, wrappers, masks, cigarette packs, coffee cups, any and all of the leftovers from the evening before. Sadness washed over me.

The next few mornings, I attempted that early rise. Sunrises lead me to peaceful walks in solitude, hearing birds waking up with calls, the bustling of morning life. The redness of the sunrise calmed me. The sun did not shine every day, but I felt at ease feeling it rise on the gloomiest days. Nearly each morning, I would meet that familiar silhouette of the man collecting garbage, people in the encampments walk around for their morning washroom breaks in the bushes- the public washrooms were taped off and locked, inaccessible. Come lunchtime nearing the afternoon, I would go outside and the scene would rinse and repeat. Groups of people coming in and out with their daily activities, dog park visits, birthdays, picnics in the same pan I would see lawn chairs set up outside of tents with folks refocusing on a new day, same life. Stuck in a cycle. Frisbees being tossed in the air while simultaneously seeing community members bringing bags of supplies and goods to the shelter behind the playground.

We managed. The Butterfield Park I once knew transformed over the years through remodelling, and once the pandemic hit, the park scene transformed into a larger narrative. We sought out community, and we expressed this need in green spaces. People will make the most of what they have to feel at home, and social activity in these community parks morphed into more than their original intentions of lounge and play. Parks during the pandemic became a necessity, and a struggle to balance what was good for us when we did not know any better. Stay home, keep your city safe. Staying home while the grass was greener on the other side of your door cracked open. Visibly seeing the toll this took on well-being, and how different the pandemic experience has been for oppressed folk in a shared space with privileged individuals all a part of the housing crisis endemic. A showroom. Parks are home for unique reasons, especially to those bereft of connection, and this open-house of classism and marginalized experiences is telling of the support work our communities require.

Priya is a Support Worker Counsellor for women in crisis, known for work done on @mad.womxn and her personal creative Priyogi focusing on amplifying, showcasing, and empowering womxn through art collaborations and storytelling.

You can follow Priya's work on Instagram @priyogiofficial.