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High Park community rallies to rebuild beloved playground

A child looks at the charred Jamie Bell Adventure Playground in Toronto's High Park that was suspected to have been deliberately set ablaze early Saturday morning.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

When a team of community members built High Park's beloved Jamie Bell Adventure Playground back in 1998, they had no trouble rounding up about 3,000 volunteers.

"It was very interesting how people would sign up for a four-hour shift and they'd get addicted and wouldn't go home," said Robin Sorys, who was the project's volunteer co-ordinator. "People ended up taking time off work."

It seems the same will be true this year, as the community plans to rebuild the gothic-style wooden structure after a Friday fire that left part of it charred. Reports said police were investigating the fire as arson.

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Damage to the adored landmark ignited strong emotions this weekend from both the team that originally built the structure and the families who have enjoyed it since. While a formal reconstruction plan hasn't yet been hammered out, the city has been overwhelmed with offers to help.

Canadian Tire has pledged $50,000 to the project. Dozens of Toronto residents have contacted Sarah Doucette, Toronto city councillor for Ward 13, with their own offers to donate not just cash, but hours of labour to restore the structure.

"I could have a team in there tomorrow to rebuild if we were allowed," Ms. Doucette said.

The cost of the damage is still unknown, but Ms. Doucette said she hoped to get answers from the city related to insurance on Monday.

The price tag on the original structure was about $250,000, but because it was built with donated labour and tools, the estimate for its real worth at the time was about $500,000, Ms. Sorys said.

Since its construction, the playground has been lauded for its design. It's a painted castle built from white pine that looks like it was plucked from the pages of a Dutch fairy tale. After the fire, the tops of a few of the tall, colourful towers in the centre of the sprawling structure were burnt black. Ms. Sorys, who has volunteered with the park for two decades, said part of the structure may have to be bulldozed and replaced entirely but the hope is to simply replace the burnt parts.

The design of the playground stood out even when it was constructed as a relic of a different era: by the nineties, most play structures were made from plastic and metal.

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Jamie Bell, a community icon and the playground's late namesake, was inspired by whimsical wooden playgrounds he spotted in the U.S. designed by Ithaca, N.Y.-based Leathers and Associates. Members of the firm travelled to Toronto in 1996 and held community consultations with kids to figure out what they were looking for and worked their suggestions into the design.

Ms. Doucette said the plan is to restore the structure to what it looked like originally using the same materials.

"The beautiful thing about the Jamie Bell playground is it fits in so beautifully in the park, surrounded by trees. A metal playground would be an eyesore there, to be honest."

When the structure was originally built, restaurants and residents alike donated so much food that army tents were set up to dish out meals, Ms. Sorys said. The construction site soon became a community hub.

"We started on Tuesday morning, by Sunday we were done with the first phase. And nobody really wanted to go. So the next day some of us had to come back to just do 'touch ups,' " Ms. Sorys recalled.

When Keith Denning was a young father, he put in three days of grunt labour to build a slide for the structure. His children, now grown up, haven't played there for years but Mr. Denning still plans to volunteer with the reconstruction team.

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"It's a great community-building thing to rebuild it and honestly, you cannot let that kind of thing win out," said Mr. Denning, now 43.

Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, 27, was a member of the small army of children who volunteered with the project when he was 12.

Mr. Chaleff-Freudenthaler said he did little more than shovel mulch for a few hours, but that small bit of labour tied him to the playground in an intimate way.

"When a community puts that kind of work into an asset like that it makes it feel like it's everybody's. It's not just that a bunch of people came in one day, were paid to put up a structure and there it is. It adds some ownership to it," he said.

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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