GUEST COLUMN: Ode to the East Street Track – gone but not forgotten

The Central/St. Patrick’s school and athletic track, seen here in 2015, are now nothing but a memory. George Mathewson

James R. Wallen

I grew up on the north side of George Street a few doors down from East Street. Our house backed onto the Sarnia Central High School field, a stone’s throw from both Hanna Memorial and Central.

It was the proximity to both schools that encouraged my tendency to put off departures to the last minute, a nasty little habit that once got me suspended from Central for three days for continued lateness. My friend, Glen Close, received the same treatment and he lived across the street from Central in the Norman Street Apartments that no longer exist, swallowed by Bluewater Health’s expansion years ago.

In case you haven’t noticed, Central High School is no longer in existence either. Just a big stretch of green grass where it used to be. The building itself continued for years as St. Patrick’s, but even a Catholic presence could not save it from redundancy.

I did manage to salvage a brick from the building, despite living in Toronto at the time. A local friend collected several as keepsakes and I managed to score one. It sits on a bookshelf in my home office, no plaque declaring its historic significance. Just a lonely red brick without purpose.

Since moving back to Sarnia five years ago, I’ve done a lot of walking, much of it with my old friend Glen. He lived for years in Vancouver and I in Toronto. We have our favourite walks but one I’ve liked doing alone has been the East Street track. Not a lot to see but it’s easy to measure distance traveled.

There have been many regulars, nodding acquaintances, always moving, sometimes in different directions. Huh? Aren’t tracks meant to be travelled in a counter-clockwise direction? Oh well, people were exercising and that was the important thing.

But one day, a woman said to me in passing, “You better enjoy it while you can,” and that saddened me. Everyone knew the helipad was coming and that the track’s days were numbered.

In a previous incarnation, that synthetic rubber track was a crunchy, charcoal-coloured cinder track. Glen liked that track back in the day. And why not? He set Sarnia high school records on that track that weren’t broken for 25 years and earned him a track scholarship to Indiana University. Me, I managed to fill my shoes with irritating cinders.

A few days ago as I arrived to get a few laps in the bulldozers were out. The distinct pink-red track surface added in 1996 during the St. Pat’s era was already gone, leaving only the earthy underbelly. No more Central, St. Pats, Norman Street Apartments or East Street track. Even my walking partner, Glen, has moved back to Vancouver.

It is hard to argue against a helipad that will allow the sick and injured access to the best medical facilities available. I still have the parks and waterfront for walking but I will miss the East Street track.

Every lap took me past the house where I grew up, allowing me for brief moments to wander in a haze of distant memories. If I were to look out my bedroom window in that house today, I wouldn’t recognize the view. But it’s not as if they “paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” is it?

James R. Wallen is a local writer and filmmaker