All fired up

The Park Avenue Community Oven is the first of its kind in the HRM. Thanks to a determined community, it lit up Leighton Dillman Park last fall.

When Jeff Overmars and his wife lived in Toronto a few years ago, a Sunday potluck at Dufferin Grove Park's bake oven was part of their routine. The weekly event made a community hub out of the winning combination of public space and good food.

When the pair moved into a yardless condo, they took up a plot at the nearby Dartmouth Common Community Garden where Overmars met fellow gardener Billy Lewis. Lewis, a veteran in food education, told Overmars of a pizza garden project he'd done with youth in Vancouver--- and that's when the wheels started turning.

"I thought, how great would it be for Billy to do that and for there to be an oven nearby where people could actually take the produce they'd be growing and make a pizza," says Overmars, who then took the idea straight to the area's councilor, Gloria McCluskey. "I met with her just to gauge interest and she was enthusiastic from the beginning."

After McCluskey helped to fund the project, Overmars gathered a small core group of volunteers to brainstorm and make plans, and it wasn't long before the Park Avenue Community Oven became a reality. There was a slight hitch, though. Some park regulars and nearby neighbours expressed concerns about how the project could change the space, and how quickly it was moved along.

"I was a little disappointed, but very understanding that people were possessive over the public space," says Overmars. "We did endeavour to get people to come out to help plan, and met with the upset people to break it down for them...many of them were converts and were some of the most active people showing up to the oven because they lived nearest."

The wood-fired, clay and sand cob oven---which sits on a wishing well-style stone base--- was thoughtfully built by Eco Developments' Gena Arthur. Located in the Leighton Dillman Park section of the Dartmouth Common (off Park Avenue), it's protected by a one-of-a-kind shelter, that blends in with the surrounding park area and was built using locally harvested wood.

When the oven's in full swing, protective awnings open up and 33 feet of stainless steel countertops fold down to reveal the open concept cooking space. Plus, the shelter's roof that allows water to run off into two rain barrels and then be used for oven's hand washing station. Not only is the oven smartly and sustainably built, it's efficient---this thing can cook bread in just over 10 minutes, pizza in less than a quarter of that.

"It creates another gathering place for people to learn about food, talk about the community and enjoy public space," says Overmars. "We had a really great first couple of months, the experience was awesome for everyone."

In its first season, the Park Avenue Community Oven got lots of use, training newcomers on how to properly light a fire and cook on Saturdays. The hope is to continue getting interested bakers trained, allowing for it to be used more often. Overmars says they'd also love to partner with community groups, restaurants and festivals to broaden the events and workshops that can be held right in the common.

For now though, the oven sleeps, resting up for another big season of cooking and conversation that'll kick off in May.

"People who live nearby take a lot of ownership over the park, they consider it their backyard," says Overmars. "It's nice having them there to cast an eye over the oven."

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