New rec center opens

Published 8:49 pm Saturday, January 24, 2009

A ceremony at the new East Suffolk Recreation Center on S. 6th Street on Saturday turned out to be part celebration and part reunion.

For every teenager or twenty-something walking around and gawking at all of the spotless cardio-trainers and weight machines, there were three or four sets of graying African-Americans — some of them stooped over canes — huddled together and exclaiming in wonder at the transformation of a building many of them had last visited as teens.

Black and gold were the colors of the day, and “Praise the Lord” was a common refrain heard along the halls.

Email newsletter signup

The event was ostensibly a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new recreation center, but it had far more significance for scores of those who attended.

“I’m still up in the air,” Amanda R. Rogers said as she introduced herself to a stranger. She graduated from the former East Suffolk High School in 1948 and taught English there from 1959 through 1965.

“I just can’t believe I’m walking these halls,” she said. “I’m so humbled.”

As they stood in one of those clean, renovated hallways, Rogers and others began to compare their histories in the building.

“What year did you graduate?” “When did you teach English here?” “Are you related to so-and-so?” “I’m his little brother!” “We used to go to Chuckatuck together!”

There were hugs and smiles and laughter throughout the building.

Even one area that the former schoolmates probably had hoped to avoid as students — the principal’s office — turned out to be a popular place to sit and look at photos and reminisce.

That office, at the front of the building, has been set aside as a mini-museum and will feature photos and memorabilia from the center’s former life as a school. The hallways also are decorated with old school items and photos.

“For us, this is a memory,” East Suffolk High School Alumni Association representative Marion B. Wright said during a ceremony prior to the ribbon-cutting. “It’s a legacy.”

Completion of the recreation center — and saving the old school — represent dreams come true for alumni, she said. “We see the hope and the promise come to be a reality.”

“This is a long-time dream coming,” Mayor Linda Johnson told the crowd in the building’s new gymnasium. “It’s a meeting place, it’s a social center; it’s a new heart for the community.”

“What was once a dream today becomes a reality,” agreed Lakota Frazier, Suffolk’s director of parks and recreation. “This building has meant so much to so many people.”

Originally built in 1939, for 29 years the building was the high school for most of Suffolk’s black students. Among its graduates is Whaleyville Borough Councilman Curtis R. Milteer Sr., who recalled the hard work that went into bringing to reality the renovation of the shuttered school, which had stood vacant for 30 years.

“I want to thank the city and all of you for coming together and making this a reality,” he told celebrants on Saturday.

The new facility includes a fitness center with elliptical machines, treadmills, weight machines, free weights and more; an 8,500 square-foot gym for basketball and volleyball; a game room with pool tables and other games for children and teens; a computer room and wireless Internet access throughout the building; a fully operable and state-of-the-art kitchen and areas for classes for everyone from preschoolers on up to senior citizens.

The facility is intended for use by all Suffolk residents. Membership is $20 per year for adults and $10 a year for kids 17 and under. Fitness memberships range from $5 a month for seniors to $10 a month for other adults.

It is a place, Frazier said, “where we will create healthy families through play.”