The Negro Community Centre in Little Burgundy was once the heart of Montreal's black community, however, tomorrow the damaged building could be sold to a private condo developer.
The building — built in 1890 — has been closed more than 20 years. Last April an exterior wall collapsed and a safety perimeter has been in place ever since.
Before becoming an international ambassador of the city's jazz scene, Oscar Peterson and others such as Oliver Jones started off on the keys at the NCC.
The NCC was once a lifeline to the community, offering music lessons, night courses, homework help and even lent money to community members, while providing a safe place for the youth in the neighbourhood.
“It's very painful to watch, knowing the historical value of this building, and the significance it had on the community at large, and hearing all of the emotions and the feelings of the people, and the pain of the people of this community,” said Keeton Clarke, a member of Montreal's black community who wants to save the Negro Community Center.
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The building no longer belongs to the community and is under trusteeship with a private firm.
After the exterior wall collapsed, the Board of Directors had to declare bankruptcy because they could not afford to cover the conservation fees, property taxes, insurance, and the cost to send an inspector to check on the building.
At the bankruptcy hearing last week the trustee announced that creditors were owed about $166,000.
A private developer — Chapam Construction — presented an offer to purchase the building for $300,000.
Saving the centre
The building itself is badly damaged. One wall has totally crumbled, exposing pipes and wood beams. Radiators have rusted and more cracks developing on other walls.
Members of the community are writing letters to local officials asking them to protect the building, however, there isn't an organized movement.
Still, many say they don't want it to become a condo development.
Clarke used to go to the centre when he first moved to Canada as a young man from the Caribbean and he believes losing the building would hurt the unity of Montreal's black community.
“We have to realize there have been many losses, many social losses in the community," said Clarke. "[The NCC] helped us — myself as a youth — to feel a part of this society, a part of this community. It allowed me to help my children to feel proud of who they are and give them a sense of history, a sense of purpose.”
Not too late?
South West borough Councillor Craig Sauvé says he and his fellow council members are behind the community and want to wait for what they call "concrete proposals," before tearing the building down.
"We're not going to grant a demolition request just because someone wants to build, because it's not just a piece of property. It's not just one building, it's a very important building. It has symbolic value, it has architectural value and people want to see it restored," said Sauve, who is responsible for the dossier.
The NCC board has refused to speak on record, however President Shirley Gyles has said she is exasperated trying to find a financially viable solution that will satisfy everyone.
Former Board member Sharon Nelson says it was difficult to get the community on board when she served between 2010 and 2012.
“What I experienced on the Board was, yes, some energy, because people were nostalgic about what they experienced as children and as young adults,” said Nelson.
“But then, for those who had a struggle with the building, whether it was in the community and it was causing problems or they were on the Board and they couldn't fulfill the goals completely, it became a tough topic to talk about.”