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Cherry Beach's conflicted history

Cherry Beach's conflicted history

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"Well it was late one Friday/ I'm a little bit wrecked/ You're on your way to serve and protect/ You buzz out of a cruiser like bees from a hive/ And ask me if I want to go for a drive/ That's why I'm riding on the Cherry Beach Express/ My ribs are broken and my face is in a mess/ and I made all my statements under duress."
"Cherry Beach Express," Pukka Orchestra, 1984



From cruisers looking for action to cruisers ferrying the unwilling, Cherry Beach has long been a destination of choice for clandestine activities in Toronto's east end.

"There's an area with willows just above head height and paths beaten down through them," says Zeno Michael, who frequented Cherry Beach in the summers between 1990 and 2000. "It's a bit of a maze, a little warren area where you can go, hang out, cruise.

"There's generally men bumping into each other, walking around and occasionally if you see somebody attractive you follow them, hook up, pull on your dicks a bit, a little sucking action. That's generally, in public, as far as I went. There's lot of other guys there doing the same thing, cruising from area to area.

"People didn't park at the beach but on Unwin and Regatta Rd," says Josh Burston, who has been enjoying park sex at Cherry Beach and other cruising spots around the city for more than two decades. "The cruising ground is at the east. Until the mid-'90s you could park at will on Unwin Ave by the power plant, but then they put up one hour parking only.

"All sorts of sex would go on: anal sex, group sex, the lurkers ( people who as soon as they see two guys going at it they zoom in. If they start jacking off other people will notice that and then it brings more people over.

"Everyone having sex has their clothes on. They might drop their pants. A lot of guys will take their dick out between the buttons or zipper. They'll pull their cock and balls out. I see that as dangerous 'cause you can get caught in the zipper. I want the entire front open rather than just pulling the cock and balls out. I don't find that very arousing. A lot of guys are walking around with their shirts off so right away they're pretty naked already so all they have to do is pull off their shorts or track pants off and drop them on the ground."

"We used to park along the road where the incinerator plant was," says Robert Maglione, who was a Cherry Beach regular in the '80s. "I don't think it was working. No one was ever down there. You parked the car and you went in [to the bushes]. There were some very busy little spots. There were all kinds of paths and then the main path closer to the water. Where there were bamboo reeds that were very maze-like. It was just like the baths."

When Dennis O'Connor, owner of the O'Connor Gallery and former chair of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Association, learned about Cherry Beach through the grape vine soon after moving to Toronto from London, Ontario in 1990.

"It's called oral," says O'Connor. "Word spreads. We're a small community and we spread the word fast.

"I used to go cruising Cherry Beach all the time in the '90s. It was a really hot place to be. Part of what made it hot was that it was dangerous. It's like cruising washrooms. It's edgy. Between security and the police, they're very risky places to have sex.

In addition to the out and proud crowd, Cherry Beach has attracted its fair share of closet cases over the years.

"Guys used to drive there Sunday morning at six or seven," says Michael. "You can tell they're all straight guys who've just dropped their wives off at church. You'd never see them in the village. You don't recognize their faces. When you go cruising in the bushes you can tell they're different, they're shy and timid. They're closeted, terrified of anybody finding out they're gay. That still goes on."

"Many people who are cruising tend to be married men," says O'Connor. "They already feel that they're doing something bad. God forbid their wife and kids find out. I think these days it's just a slap on the wrist. You're not likely to be hauled into court, charged criminally and your name printed in the newspapers.

"[Getting caught by police] was a terrifying prospect [in previous decades]. A lot of people lost their jobs and committed suicide because they couldn't deal with the embarrassment. Back then you would get a criminal record, couldn't get a passport or bonded for a job. It was pretty devastating. I don't think the justice system realizes what a criminal record means to someone who was caught sucking a cock behind a tree."

Burston says that although he did see cops on horseback at Cherry Beach from time to time, he never got hassled.

"I'd be hanging out on my bike smoking a joint and I'd ask if I could pet their horse. They were generally very cool."

"I was never there long enough to run into the police," says Maglione. "The only problem I ever had was mosquitoes. That close to the water, as soon as you pulled your pants down, everything would be going great and then you'd have to move your hand [to swat mosquitoes away]."

"I think there should be a fucking plaque," says O'Connor, "Not to mention a memorial to all those people who have been caught in unsavoury circumstances and quite possibly ended their life because if it."

***

It's ironic that Toronto police used to take queers and other undesirables to the very same place to beat on them.

"It happened so frequently that there was even a popular song played on the radio about it," says sex work activist Valerie Scott. "Interestingly, about the same time that song became popular we ceased hearing any stories of abuse from police at Cherry Beach. I wonder if it's because the police thought, "Oh dear, there's even a pop song on the radio about it. Maybe we should stop this ( or find a different location.'"

Despite the fact that the beatings at Cherry Beach are one of the city's worst kept secrets, few were willing to speak about their experiences on the record.

"People are afraid to talk about abuse that they personally have suffered at the hands of the police because they're afraid of retribution from the police," says Scott.

Peanuts, a 75-year-old butch who earned her nickname in the '50s at the Cameo Club, remembers being taken down to Cherry Beach in the '50s and '60s and hearing from contemporaries who'd had similar experiences.

"The cops would see a nice-looking girl and would take the femme and force sex on them," says Peanuts. "The butches they would take to Cherry Beach and stomp on their hands."

In a transcript of an interview from Lesbians Making History, an oral history project made available by Maureen Fitzgerald at the University of Toronto's Sexual Diversity Studies Program, a woman going by the pseudonym Arlene spoke about leaving the Continental Hotel ( a lesbian bar in the '50s ( and being picked up by the cops and taken to Cherry Beach.

"They'd just pick you up, take you to the car and you were lucky if they said two words to you," says Arlene. "These were big cops and they'd take you down to Cherry Beach and handcuff your hands behind your back and beat the shit out of you and leave you there. 'Walk,' [the cops would say]. If you were lucky they left your clothes. That was another dirty trick: Take your clothes and make you walk home stark.

"They did that to the gay men, too, because I've had a few gay men come to my door. [Arlene lived downtown and was known to have a home that was a safe place.] They love to do that in the winter. And there wasn't a charge, there wasn't. Your money would go with them. But they didn't need an excuse. They didn't need anything.

"I got raped by two cops one night," says Arlene. "Couldn't do a thing. You couldn't go and charge them, and you were even afraid to go to the hospital, because what would you say? If you opened your mouth and said it was cops they would just pick you up and do it all over again for opening your mouth."

Queers weren't the only ones to find themselves on the Cherry Beach Express. In 2000 Stuart Mitchell, a 49-year-old homeless man, died of his injuries three weeks after claiming police beat him up at Cherry Beach.

"I remember when I first came to work at Central Neighbourhood House," social worker Gaetan Heroux told Eye Weekly following the launch of a Special Investigations Unit inquiry into Mitchell's death. "There was a meeting I had with some native men, where we talked about Cherry Beach and every one of them knew about Cherry Beach, and several of them had been taken to Cherry Beach."

Another homeless man, Thomas Kerr, alleged that he'd been beaten by police at Cherry Beach in 1996. All nine officers involved were cleared by an internal investigation, but in the civil suit that followed, police decided to pay out $500,000 right before Const Craig Brommell was set to take the stand, effectively ending the case. Brommell went on to become the head of the police union.

"It was an out of court settlement," says Const Wendy Drummand in the Toronto Police Services corporate communications. "We were trying to restrict losses. To proceed with the case would have been very costly."

***

A lot has changed at Cherry Beach, with many more changes yet to come. It's still under the jurisdiction of 51 Division, but now Church St is too, having been shifted from 51 Division in April 2004.

A makeover of the Cherry Beach area is currently underway, beginning with the construction of two soccer fields and a parking lot, that had been intended to accommodate the Federation International Football Association under-20 World Cup last spring, but did not meet the schedule.

"We didn't start as soon as we wanted because of community concerns," says Kristen Jenkins, VP of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation, "then the soil management was bigger than we thought. There was an underground plume [contaminants] running off the site and heading toward the lake. We fenced off the area and built underground piping system so we could pump the contaminants back onto the site. But we discovered other environmental issues."

The original plans for the soccer fields were expected to include the destruction of 400 existing trees.

"The numbers have changed since last year," says Jenkins. "We will replace as many trees at that site as we can and beyond that we will be adding hundreds of trees all around the Port Lands. We're planting about 600 large trees elsewhere in addition to the ones on site, which refers to the sports field."

Development of the east end's waterfront is expected to continue over the next 10 years, encompassing 800 square feet from Cherry Beach to Ashbridge's Bay. The resulting Lake Ontario Park will be under the direction of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation.

The new park has been designed to include large sand dunes along the water and various sports facilities. But will it continue to include the cruising ground gay men have enjoyed for decades? Only time will tell whether or not the current plans will be adapted for sexual recreation.

Comments

Well done
What a wide-ranging and well-researched piece on the intersections between sexuality, class and the politics of public space. Bravo!
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