Montreal buys lot where Black community centre once thrived, asks public to help plan its future

Andrea Este is vice president of the Centre for Canadians of African Descent, which was formerly the NCC.  Her uncle started the NCC in Montreal. ( Kwabena Oduro/CBC - image credit)
Andrea Este is vice president of the Centre for Canadians of African Descent, which was formerly the NCC. Her uncle started the NCC in Montreal. ( Kwabena Oduro/CBC - image credit)

Jerry Pipim has been cutting hair in Montreal's Little Burgundy neighborhood for three and a half decades, and even after all those years, he still credits his success to a community centre that closed in 1989.

"A lot of us who grew up in a single-mother household, you know, that place represented our father that we were missing because there were men guiding us and teaching us the ropes," Pipim said.

"That's what actually led me to be an entrepreneur today," he added. "I would love to see such a thing come back."

Pipim is talking about the days when the Negro Community Centre (NCC) was thriving in the city's Sud-Ouest borough, providing a range of services and activities like music lessons, night classes, tutoring and even loans to those in need.

Montreal jazz greats Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones used to play there as well.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

The NCC has been closed for 33 years, and the building was ultimately demolished in 2014 after a portion of the abandoned structure collapsed.

But the city bought the land earlier this month, and is now planning how to develop it into a space that once again serves the community.

To develop that plan, the borough is consulting Black community groups and leaders, asking them what they would like to see built on the land, which is located on Coursol Street, not far from the Georges-Vanier Metro Station.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

Andrea Este is vice president of the Centre for Canadians of African Descent, which was formerly the NCC. She never experienced the NCC first hand as she grew up on the South Shore, but she heard plenty of stories as it was her late uncle, Rev. Charles H. Este, who started it in 1927.

"The NCC was primarily for the Black community but many other people would come and take the courses and partake in the different programs," she said. "For me, it's a legacy that is very important to continue."

The Black community went through extreme hardships, she explained, but her uncle fought for their rights and for justice. The NCC became a place of refuge, but also of celebration, she said.

Andrea Este hopes to establish something close to what the NCC once was, she said.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

Coun. Craig Sauvé said the borough wants to preserve that historic identity. That's why, since a private investor bought the land in 2014, the city has fought to protect it from development. The property was zoned for educational and cultural use.

"We are going to have to work with the community now because it's the community that's really been petitioning us to do something that's not just another residential or commercial project," Sauvé said.

Acquiring the property was the first step, but now it's time to consult the community, develop a plan and ensure the financing is available. Sauvé has been working on this file for many years, but he's not trying to create his own vision.

"I felt I had to be a good steward for this neighbourhood and this site, so I hope the community can find a consensus and we can put some financial strategies together and make it go forward," said Sauvé.

"It can't be understated the value of community participation."