I feel have to voice my feelings of shame, frustration and deep regret that in this day and age and despite all of the promises from the three levels of our government and the insistance of the black community that they wanted the Negro Community Center either rebuilt, renovated and most importantly reopened, that everyone including myself failed. I am deeply saddened that I lived to see this place of such cherished memories fall into such a state of disrepair that an outside wall fell causing it to be a danger to passers-by and playing children. Another thing that annoys me immensely is that it has been reported that the sale of the land was done through an anonymous trustee of the NCC to an anonymous buyer for a poultry $300,000.00 to develop as they see fit which I do believe leans towards condo development. Who actually received the monies for the land is unsure, what it will be used for is unsure and will the people the Negro Community Center use to serve actually receive any benefit from the sale, I am unsure, but I doubt it. All of these things are a mystery because this whole sale was done in a back door deal fashion. Nothing to this date has been done by any government to fill the void of services that the Negro Community Center provided to its community and it is because as we all know governments, the middle class and the rich do not care where the poor kids play as long as it is not with their kids.
I think that the things listed below represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we are going to miss every time we lose one of these irreplaceable places of hope that offer their services at rates that the poorest of the poor can afford, if not for free.
- Community centers and churches played a big role in the development of the young people of our community and no where in Montreal was this more true than in the black community. My community’s make up was multi cultural as well as ethnically and religiously diverse. The usual racial and non inclusive behaviour of that era supported, flourished in those morally dark days and so quite often by unspoken agreement whites in the neighborhood had their churches, community centers and bars and though never spoken out loud, ever black person man woman and child knew or soon learned that they were not welcome in the places where the whites gathered socially. To try and improve the lot of black people who found themselves not welcome in churches, community centers and bars frequented by white people, Blacks were forced to create their own places in which to socialize, like Rockhead’s Paradise, the Universal Negro Improvement Association of Montreal (UNIA), the Negro Community Center and their own Union United Church (Also known as the coloured people’s church with its coloured minister). These institutions promoted the ideology that families within community should interact as one big family and as such sponsored community picnics, days in the park and other family activities; they started scholarship programs to encourage black children to go on to the highest of levels of education and to aspire to be the best that they could be. Places like the Negro Community Center also provide a place of refuge from prejudice, a place that for just a few hours a day you did not have to worry about being called a derogatory name, or get beat up for being black. In spite of all of the differences that one might expect to find in this type mixing of Catholics, protestants, French and English, Irish, Italian and negro it was the community centers in the area that tried to improve our social skills and help knock down the walls of prejudice; the ones we were building as well as the ones we found ourselves trapped behind.
- Most community centers gave music and dance lessons holding recitals at the end of the year, open to the whole community to show case the talents of it’s members. They also sponsored sports teams and at the end of the sport season a big sports banquet would be held where trophies would be given for the teams winning the most games and individual trophies handed out for outstanding play and sportsmanship and the negro Community Center was no different.
- The Negro Community Center offered tutoring, cheap day care and a hot lunch program. Community centers also recognized that for a child to grow healthy they needed time away from the authority of their elders. In this light they set up programs and field trips and other outings where adults were not invited. It was in this forum that children within reason could feel free to explore and feel free to express themselves as who they were without fear of reprisal from adults. They also offered a supervised after school program for young children and a supervised evening program for teens.
- The Negro Community Center offered a day camp for their members during the summer vacation and those too old to attend as campers often found summer employment as councillors or councillors in training. They had doctors in for free consultations and lawyers were available if needed to give legal advice. Lest I forget let me just mention right now that membership was available to all no matter what color you were or what God you prayed to or even what language you spoke. I know this to be true because I went there. I learned to play piano from the same person who taught Oscar Peterson to play, his older sister Daisy Peterson who volunteered and provided piano lessons to members for 50 cents at the Negro Community Center. My sister took ballet and tap from Olga Spencer who also volunteered her time energy and love of her craft.
Erasing A Community One Item At A Time is easy to do usually because who cares about how the lack of institutions will cause suffering for the poor and most fragile people in any given community? To the city they are seen as in the way of money-making development, an eye sore that needs to be removed. The services that poor people require cost the government money with very little tax dollars to pay for them, where as a nice condo development brings in taxes and high-end businesses. Everyone knows that there will always be poor people, because they are a direct result of our choice of governance, lack of morality and sense of individual greed and importance. (There can be no rich, if there are no poor.) Every community acknowledges that there will always be poor who need help, but they try to ensure that the poor are not amassing in there boroughs by taking away what they need to live in a community, like low-income housing, free community centers, free public pools and public schools replacing them with things that cost like memberships that seem low, but are still out of range for a poor person with kids having a hard time keeping a roof over their heads, keeping their children fed and clothing on their children’s backs. This is the new recipe for redeveloping the areas of the city of Montreal’s historically poor neighbourhoods and I think that it sucks big time
It is a shame that the local governments have come to the conclusion that these institutional pillars of the community are obsolete and can be replaced by sports centers strategically place throughout communities. Although these sports centers may fit in really well with the new ghetto concept of development that surrounds an area historically with condos, special high-priced food stores, and removes all places where poor people can get support services from the area in hopes that the poor in the area will decide to move out and get closer to the services that allow them to survive. These new institutions charge fees and although by average standards they are low, for the poor people in the community and the children who need them the most the services and benefits are lost. Walking in the area as a man with children of his own it is sad to see that the picnics no longer happen, most of the community centers are no longer in existence, the large catholic churches have either been torn down,or donated as university or college spaces, or bought and turned into condos, but the worst thing about my old community is that no one seems to know anyone other than their own family and circle of friends.
The street gangs are now filling the void and giving children a sense of belonging, pride and means of survival. They are filling the void left by a vanishing community support network. Look to the writings on the walls the street gangs are talking to you and thanking you for giving them an environment in which they can flourish. Buying up the land and shutting down community centers might seem easy and cheap, but living safely is quite another thing and even poor people will find a way to survive, because self-preservation is the strongest instinct any of us have.
Beware, because when you take away all of the legal ways for poor people to earn a living and do what is necessary to feed, shelter and protect their children, you create a very dangerous environment where the well to do become the food of the poor. The poor you are surrounding with your condos and high-priced food stores remind me of a picture I once saw of a group of lions in a zoo looking at a tourist balancing on the safety wall trying to get a better shot; the caption read, “supper has arrived.”