Montreal

Community members want to buy back site of historic Black community centre, once the 'heartbeat of Little Burgundy'

Black Montrealers say they want to build something that would serve the community, like a library, a museum and an auditorium.

Black Montrealers say they want to build something that would serve the community on the site

David Shelton, left, and Victor Paris are hoping to revitalize the vacant lot where a historic community centre once stood. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

A group in Little Burgundy is trying to reclaim a piece of land in the neighbourhood that once belonged to the historic Black community centre.

Victor Paris, one of the members of the committee looking to revive the community centre, practically grew up there.

It's where he played his first basketball game.

It's also the neighbourhood where his parents, uncles and aunts grew up.

By the time his father came out of the army and was ready to settle down, the area was already gentrifying. His family bought a house in Longueuil instead, but sent their son to the community centre, which became a home away from home.

"Coming to this place, where I can be safe, with my people, was extraordinary -- and not just be with my people, but to see people in administrative positions, authority positions. It was foundational for me," he said.

Paris says he was distraught when the crumbling historic Negro Community Centre (NCC) on Coursol Street was demolished in 2014.

A vacant lot now sits where the stone building once stood.

Paul Sen Chher, a developer, bought the land, and is planning to build on the site, but community members, like Paris, are asking the city for a chance to buy back the land.

'The heartbeat of Little Burgundy'

Established in 1927, the community centre was a vibrant hub for the Black community for decades, with after-school programs, dance classes and performances by jazz legends like Oscar Peterson, who learned to play piano at the centre.

"The NCC was the heartbeat of Little Burgundy," said David Shelton, a member of the committee looking to revive the centre.

The developer who bought the land says he wasn't aware of the historical importance of the site when he paid about $300,000 for it.

WATCH: CBC visits Montreal's Negro Community Centre in 1957
Black and white Montrealers all benefit from the programs at the centre in 1957. 3:49

Chher says he plans to build a residential project, with some commercial space and a small exhibit area to commemorate the past, but says it will have to make sense financially.

"I'm open to any ideas, anything I could do to make sure that the project that's coming on this piece of property will make everybody happy," said Chher.

"I'd be glad to do it as long as the product, of course, is financially viable," he said.

But Shelton says that's not what he and other community members were hoping for.

"We just feel it's incongruous with what the community needs to thrive and survive here," he said.

Shelton said that with the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racism protests, this is a time when more people are awakening to racial injustice.

The moment calls for a community centre, not a private building, said Shelton.

Victor Paris says it's important for the Black community to have ownership of that historic piece of land.

He says he wants "a historical cultural centre, an auditorium and a library" but is willing to accept some housing as part of it.

It should be something, he says, that can serve the community.

Paris and Shelton say they hope the city will give their group the chance to buy back the land at a fair price.

The City of Montreal said if the owner does decide to sell the land, it would not rule out using its right of first refusal to buy the land and develop social housing there.

With files from Verity Stevenson and Holly Cabrera

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