The Dunbat has been one of the city’s most popular skate parks for the past decade, even though it doesn’t officially exist.
Early last Friday evening, the steady slapping of decks on concrete reverberated throughout “Dunbat” skate park near Bathurst and Dundas. A few dozen skaters sat along the perimeter or skated around the concrete rectangle, while a wiry kid launched into the air in an attempt to ollie onto a ledge box, his board skittering out from beneath him when he lost his footing on the tail. A fit shirtless guy dropped into the half-pipe as a girl watching nearby took a drag of her smoke. A cluster of street punks nearby jostled and joked, while their Rottweiler sniffed at an empty burger wrapper.
Roy and J.Z. sat on a bench, rolling their skateboards back and forth under their feet. The teens had trekked in from Rexdale and the Lake Shore, respectively. Despite the bare-bones setup, they prefer this park to ones near them “because it’s downtown, it’s the heart of the city,” said J.Z. “It’s Toronto—we rep our city.”
The skatepark opened in 2003, the brainchild of 40-year-old contractor Rob Poyner. “We’d go downtown in the late ’80s and we’d always get kicked out and get tickets,” he said of his formative skateboarding years. As we stood in the park, he glanced at the kids practising tricks on the ledge boxes. “It was always in my head that we needed to have a place to go where kids wouldn’t get busted and run down by security.”
Poyner, who builds concrete parks for a living, volunteered to build Dunbat after the John Innes Community Centre kicked in $30,000 for materials. He’s done all the subsequent maintenance and additions, which he’s been paying for out of his own pocket for the past four years. Currently, Dunbat receives no funding from the city. Poyner would like to run events in the skate park to raise money for its upkeep and expansion, but it’s a complicated process mired in legalities. “When we try to go to the city to get permits for events, they say, ‘We don’t have any skateboard park listed.’ It’s not designated as an official city skateboarding park.”
“From now [6 p.m.] to 11 at night, you’ll have 100 kids or more using it. It’s the most used thing in the area,” said Poyner. Of course, it was also the tail end of summer holidays, high season for skateboarding in the park. Riders slid, leapt, rolled, and skated over nearly every surface he’d installed: half-pipes, ledge boxes, a kicker box, a handrail, even a stump from a nearby tree. A pigeon pecked at some cigarette butts littered at the west edge of the park, while a lanky skater landed a rail slide, screeched to a halt, took off his glasses, and wiped his brow on his t-shirt.
Before the city put in the concrete pad, Poyner says that “the ground was like a cheese grater—when you’d fall, you’d rip your arms apart and everything.” He volunteers his time making repairs, painting over graffiti to keep park area supervisors happy, and carefully dismantling and packing away the ramps every winter. “Within a couple of years they’re redoing the whole Scadding Court Community Centre, so I don’t know if they’re going to keep this or not. The city owns all the property, they own the park, and they’re not putting the money into it. They did originally, and now nobody does, except for me. I want to continue to do it and make it look good.”
Poyner has seen a lot of these kids grow up, and some of them return with their own families. The previous day, “a dude that used to skate here gave us about $400 in granite. He lives and works in London now and he said, ‘I want to do something for you guys.’ That’s what we rely on. I’ll spend next week building a granite ledge.”
Dunbat is a simple, understated park, but its popularity rivals some of the larger, more elaborate skate parks in The Beaches or in Etobicoke. It’s a downtown location where kids can go for hours a day, practice skating without fear of harassment, and hang out with friends. “It’s a place to come where you’re always going to know somebody,” noted Poyner.
When I asked J.Z. why he skated here, he squinted and said: “To get away from the bad stuff. To have fun.”