In Memory of the Negro Community Centre

Calls Surface for Rebuilding of Little Burgundy’s Community Hub

Oliver Jones, centre, Promise Uche Zekee, right and friend standing in front of the NCC gravesite. Photo Brandon Johnston

It was on a piano in the Negro Community Centre that Montreal jazz musicians Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones spent countless hours after school and on the weekend crafting the skills to become award-winning musicians.

The NCC was demolished in 2014, and the Black community of the city’s Southwest borough lost an important pillar of their neighbourhood.

In an effort to revive the community spirit, Promise Uche Zekee is hoping to build another community centre in the same space, which he would name the Montreal World Peace Centre.

“It’s going to be for everybody. We do believe that it’s a good thing that benefits everybody. It’s about love and peace and sharing and caring for each other. We want to make it all-inclusive,” says Zekee.

Wearing a Bob Marley bandana wrapped around his neck, poking out over his fur collar, Zekee says he’s a citizen of the world, as he doesn’t believe in nationalities. Instead, he believes that we are all one people—but people who know him say he’s originally from Nigeria.

The historic site was originally built as a church in 1890 and was repurposed into the centre in 1927. It was a place where many grew up, playing music and basketball, among a variety of other activities.

Even though the NCC wasn’t used for 20 years prior to its demolition, the new generations still regarded it as a staple of their community. The building was in the heart of the community and many walked by it every day. Although no longer in existence, it still holds the same symbolic
value it always did. A young man who had only heard of the NCC acknowledged that it was a pillar of the community. Another young woman said it was a big loss.

“It’s really a tragedy to see that something that was so important get demolished,” said Ashley (no last name given).

A sign planted in the empty lot where the NCC once stood says the Superior Court of Quebec ordered the City of Montreal to demolish the building. It says that the building lost more than 50 per cent of its original value and was deemed a threat to the security of people. It says there were no alternatives to demolition.

However, the NCC didn’t go down without a fight. There were a lot of controversies surrounding the closing down of the centre in 1989. Some initiatives were launched to help revive it over the years, but were regrettably not enough to stop its destruction.

Shirley Gyles, who is the former president of the centre, claims she was trying to keep it alive, but that saving it was out of her reach.

The centre was in “such bad shape” that the $500,000 grant Gyles received from the city wasn’t enough to even begin the renovations, she says. It was left rotting in its place for 20 years—with no heat or electricity—after a fire wrecked it, leading to its closure.

According to those who spoke to The Link including Jones and Zekee, the community is still bitter at Gyles for abandoning the centre.

Zekee also mentioned that the centre’s archives had gone missing, as well as a piano on which Oliver Jones was said to have learned to play.

Concordia University recovered most of the archives from the NCC. However, the piano has not yet reappeared.

Jones grew up at the centre. He would go there often as a child, as his mom couldn’t always take care of him after school.

“It should have been decreed a heritage place. A lot of work, a lot of history went into that, and to see them bulldoze it the way they did left a terrible taste in people’s mouths,” Jones said.

Jones supports Zekee’s project to build another community centre in its place.

“It’s needed in this community. There’s a lot being done in the Southwest and one of the things that is missing from the puzzle is a place for youngsters to go,” Jones continued.

“It’s needed in this community. There’s a lot being done in the Southwest and one of the things that is missing from the puzzle is a place for youngsters to go.” — Olivier Jones

In 2014, the NCC declared bankruptcy with PricewaterhouseCoopers. The legal firm settled the centre’s debt to the city and other particulars, says Christian Bourke, who was in charge of the bankruptcy file.

The firm then sold the building to a private real estate developer.

There is now talk that the developer will build condo projects where the NCC once stood. Zekee expressed that he wants to buy the land back from the developer. Since the empty lot is zoned as a community space, it only makes sense to keep the spirit of the space and build another community centre, he added.

Little Burgundy is still feeling the loss—a graffiti painted on the barricades of the empty lot reads “RIP Negro Community Centre.”

Correction: This article originally quoted an anonymous source, which should have been removed in the editing process. The Link regrets the error.