Bathing Beach at the foot of Cherry Street, Toronto, 1933. Image by Alfred Pearson. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.
Cherry Street looking south from Keating Channel bridge, Toronto, 1930. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.
Bridge over Keating Channel, Toronto, May 24, 2021.
Richard L. Hearn Generating Station, 1960s. Image: City of Toronto Archives.
Cherry Beach: Oasis for All
Set Aside for Fun
Today, Cherry Beach is a surprising sanctuary, located just south of the bustling Port Lands. Although the Toronto Harbour Commission’s 1912 plan transformed much of this area into an industrially focused district, it also set aside a large portion of the area’s south side for Torontonians to use for leisure activities. The plan included a space for cottages, a park, and a beach beside an artificial lagoon featuring footbridges and a promenade. This area was one of several parks that the commission claimed would be created all along the waterfront. However, much of this green space never materialized according to plan.
Later, the commission’s chief engineer, Edward L. Cousins, admitted that much of the park space in the 1912 plan was included as a tactic to gain local support for this grand and expensive development project. Selling or leasing industrial space was how the commission generated revenue; this was their priority. However, the Harbour Commission never developed the slice of the Port Lands that is now Cherry Beach and, by the 1930s, Torontonians were coming here to enjoy a fun-filled day by the lake.
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A Spotty History
Cherry Beach has a complicated past: a place of recreation and crime, nature and industry. Torontonians have had a strange relationship with the beach. A beach destination as early as the 1930s, it was also used as an illegal trash dump during the 1950s. There were repeated calls on the city to clean up the area. For decades, Cherry Beach’s future seemed uncertain, with plans by the Harbourfront Commission to turn it into space for warehouses and docks.
Despite these setbacks, the beach remained a place for fun and relaxation. Newspaper stories give us an idea of the fun times enjoyed at Cherry Beach over the years. Thousands of swimmers enjoyed the beach on hot summer days in the 1950s, requiring 14 lifeguards to oversee the fun. Special events could also draw huge crowds: in 1969, roughly 15,000 people gathered at the beach to see an air show. In the late 1960s, amateur sailors established the Water Rat Sailing Club just east of Cherry Beach. The Club could offer winter boating due to the warm waters the nearby Hearn Generating Station pumped into the lake. While not perfect, the beach was an important destination for many Torontonians looking for fun and relaxation.
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An Area Serving All
Aside from fun and relaxation, Cherry Beach has served many other needs. Its remote location allowed it to be an escape for people facing injustice. For gay men, the beach’s secluded east end offered a spot to find intimacy when other spaces were limited and being open about your identity posed significant risk.
People experiencing homelessness have also used Cherry Beach area as a retreat. In 1980, Nick Ratovic,nicknamed the “Cherry Beach Loner” by the Toronto Star, lived on the beach in a plywood hut he built. In 1998, a plot of unused land just west of the Cherry Street Bridge became a gathering space for people experiencing homelessness, forming a community that would become known as “Tent City.” By the time residents were forced out of the area in 2002, it consisted of several structures and had a population of roughly 100. We shouldn’t forget the importance of this space to the people who lived there. There was a sense of ownership and community—people ensured the area around their homes was tidy, there was a garden where vegetables were grown. After the eviction, one resident said about the site, “It was finally some place I could call home.”
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A Wilderness of Wrongdoing
Over its history, the Cherry Beach area has also been a site of serious crime. One reporter in the 1950s called the Cherry Beach area a “sin wilderness” and a ”crime hotbed.” Two murders were believed to have occurred on the beach in the same year: Linda Lampkin in January 1956 and Gary Morris in October 1956.
Off the beaten path and particularly quiet in the winter when it is too cold for beachgoers, it becomes clear why the Cherry Beach area would be the site of such awful activities. Another cruelty reported to have occurred in this area was known as the “Cherry Beach Express.” Numerous people struggling with homelessness and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community allege that police forced them to the secluded beach where they were beaten. The claims of violence became better known in 1984, when Canadian new wave group Pukka Orchestra released the song “Cherry Beach Express”. The song’s lyrics refer to a person “riding on the Cherry Beach Express” and being harassed by the “boys in blue.”
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Cherry Beach: Oasis for All
For powerful firsthand accounts by those experiencing homelessness, including stories of Tent City, see:
Cathy Crowe. Dying for a Home, Homeless Activists Speak Out. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2007.