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Toronto Urban Legends: Cherry Beach Express

Is there any truth to the stories about police using Cherry Beach as a place to rough up perps?

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

For decades, visitors have come to Cherry Beach to engage in activities, legal or otherwise. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/58609798@N00/6992641052/"}BruceK{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Viewed after dusk from the south end of Cherry Street, the wharves, cargo ships, long shadows, and Toronto skyline resemble a scene from a James Ellroy novel, or the setting of a classic noir film. Conjure up a couple of beefy, take-no-guff cops and one ne’er-do-well punk from central casting, and you have the makings an intriguing pulp-fiction narrative.

Known as the Cherry Beach Express since as far back as the 1950s, the isolated area has a notorious history. Stories have circulated about Toronto police officers escorting perps on after-hours rides to this stretch of underpopulated Port Lands real estate to mete out rough justice with the business end of a billy club.

Have a lawyer on speed dial, because we’re going on a ride in the rear seat of a squad car, in search of the truth of these rumours.

There was a time when Cherry Beach, located at the foot of Cherry Street, was as popular with East End Torontonians as Sunnyside Park is with West Enders. For years after Alderman Harry Clarke convinced city council to designate the beach as parkland in 1934, families arrived in droves.

In recognition of his initiative, the beachfront was named Clarke Beach Park. But this name never took. In 2003, city council officially altered the name to reflect this reality.

A good thing, too, at least as far as this urban legend goes. “Clarke Beach Express” lacks a certain On The Waterfront appeal.

Today, the area is popular with dog walkers, kiteboarders, and soccer moms. For years the beach has also been a popular haunt within the gay community.

Torontoist made an effort to obtain the official police take on the lingering urban legend. As expected, the cops weren’t talking. For what it’s worth, in 1984, when the new-wave band Pukka Orchestra released their single “Cherry Beach Express,” police brass took immediate steps to block its airplay.

Tracking down individuals with firsthand experience of being horsewhipped by police in the Port Lands proved frustrating. It wasn’t hard to find those with low opinions of our men and women in blue, but ask them for specifics regarding the Cherry Beach Express and our cadre of layabouts will admit only to knowing of a friend of a friend who had gone on a midnight ride.

There is at least one famous case. A homeless man named Thomas Kerr accused several police officers of taking him to Cherry Beach and beating him, in 1996. In 2003, he settled with Toronto Police for a reported $750,000.

And there’s also a fictional take on the legend: R.D. Cain’s novel, aptly titled Cherry Beach Express.

Besides authoring a cop-based murder-mystery series (part two in the Steve Nastos series, Dark Matter, has just been released), Cain is a police officer.

Cherry Beach Express is not exactly Serpico, but it’s nonetheless a good read. And Cain adds an unexpected twist. Instead of a down-on-his-luck scoundrel getting roughhoused by police, the novel sees an innocent—and, for the most part, honest—detective framed for a gruesome water’s-edge slaying.

Though entirely a work of fiction, the novel is a window onto a certain strain of police thinking. At one point, a commanding officer contemplates that “He didn’t mind cops doing what they had to do, but embarrassing the service while doing it ruined it for everyone.”

If this legend is in fact based in truth, a daytime visit to the Port Lands makes it clear why police would choose this area as a place to deliver street justice. Shabby even when busy with commercial traffic and beachgoers, the place is also isolated. This would only be compounded during the winter.

It’s also uniquely cut off from the mainland. Though hundreds of acres in size, Cherry Beach and surrounding environs have only two overland access routes: Leslie Street from the east and Cherry Street from the north.

Cherry Street's Strauss Trunnion Bascule Bridge. Photo by Edward Brown/Torontoist.

Access is further reduced when the menacing steel-and-concrete Strauss Trunnion Bascule Bridge is drawn.

Whether you’re innocent or otherwise, being handcuffed in the cramped rear quarters of a police cruiser is frightening. In the dark of night, even for a hardened criminal, the distinctive sound of the patrol car’s tires passing over the grated surface of the medieval drawbridge would be downright terrifying.

Among ruffians contacted by Torontoist, all agreed the unproven systematic practice of police brutality occurring at Clarke Beach Park ended for good after Thomas Kerr’s case started making headlines.

In the end, Torontoist was unable to authenticate, or disprove, this disturbing urban legend. If it ever did occur with regularity, let’s hope the barbaric practice is now a thing of the past.

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