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Negro Community Centre getting more than a facelift

by Archives February 26, 2008

When Montreal’s Little Burgundy appears in the news, it’s usually because of violence, creating a stigma that is hard to alter.
That may be changing soon thanks to a $6.5 million revitalization of the vacant Negro Community Centre (NCC) located on the corner of Coursol and Canning streets. The project is expected to return Little Burgundy to the vibrancy of past years and reinstate a sense of community among its black youth.
The NCC was boarded up and left vacant for 15 years because of insufficient funds. The faces of prominent Blacks adorning the walls are constant reminders of better times for the once energy-filled neighbourhood centre, now over 60 years old. Since its closure in ’93, great effort has been put forth to revitalize the centre, now called the N.C.C. Charles H. Este Cultural Centre, named after Reverand Este for his contribution to the community in the 1920s.
Today, it’s closer than ever to reopening. If Montreal’s latest pledge of 2.5 million dollars is added to the $4 million already promised by the federal and provincial governments, the project should be up and running as early as October 2008.
Among the many residents working to revitalize the centre, community advocate and director of Youth in Motion, Michael Farkas believes the time is right to reopen the N.C.C.
“This monument (the N.C.C.) is a piece of heritage for the community, and could be the pride of all Montrealers,” said Farkas. “[It] can be the centrepiece [for] different activities . . . to really make this community thrive again and be a second home for a lot of residents.”
In its prime, the N.C.C. was a cultural hub, a place where youth could go to make friends, take part in after school activities and learn about black history. Farkas fondly recollects his time spent at the centre during his youth.
“I had the chance to pass through in the ’80s . . . I was doing some workshops learning how to [work] in TV . . . [And] they had a program about how to handle the camera,” said Farkas. “Sometimes [the N.C.C.] had night functions . . . and that was always a pleasure,” he said.
Shirley Gyles, president of the N.C.C. Charles H. Este Cultural Centre and also a former N.C.C. member, has been campaigning to all levels of government to return the N.C.C to Little Burgundy, and to re-establish a sense of community and identity that she believes is critical for Montreal’s new generation of black youth.
“[The N.C.C.] is something that is very near and dear to our hearts, something that we need in the community,” said Gyles.
She envisions a centre that will provide people with a place to hold events and for seniors to socialize. But more importantly, she wants it to be a place where everyone can learn about black history.
“With the centre we’re hoping to bring everyone back to come and participate in the centre,” said Gyles. “I was born here in Montreal, and anything I learned about black history I had to do on my own.”
The N.C.C will also have to adapt to a changing world outside its new doors. The recent influx of immigrants from cultures around the world means that the community is more diverse and that means the N.C.C will also need to offer diverse programming.
That’s why Coalition de la Petite-Bourgogne coordinator, Vicente Perez, wants the new centre to cater to a more diverse group than it did in the past, to make sure that residents outside of the black community aren’t alienated.
“In the past [the N.C.C.] was targeting just a specific community . . . and the people living here now have changed, so it must be more open . . . and [the organizers are] willing to do that,” said Perez.
“It’s long overdue, it’s time,” said Farkas. “We can’t afford all these long winters with nothing to do.”

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