14.10 Demolition and the Future of the NCC/Charles H. Este Cultural Centre
The historian Dorothy Williams has characterized Montreal’s Black history, and present, as the story “of a people whose history has been ignored, deliberately omitted, or distorted.” This paper will look at the NCC/Charles H. Este Cultural Centre as a lieu de mémoire, or memory space: a space where people can engage in the active and collective process of making memory and meaning from a shared past in the present. The NCC/Charles H. Este Cultural Centre was located in Little Burgundy, the historic home to Montreal’s English-speaking Black community, in the South-West borough of Montreal. Founded as the Negro Community Association in 1927, by Rev. Charles H. Este and his parishioners at the Union United Church, with the stated aim “to alleviate social and economic conditions amongst Blacks in Montreal,” the NCC operated in the church’s basement until 1955 when it relocated to its permanent home at 2035 Coursol. Their new building had originally been constructed in 1890 as the West End Methodist Church. The NCC operated in the old church until 1995, when the doors were permanently shuttered.
My research on the NCC/Charles H. Este Cultural Centre began in 2009. At that time the NCC board had reformed under the new name, NCC/Charles H. Este Cultural Centre, and was working to raise awareness and funds for a $7,000,000 renovation project that would have reopened the building with major modifications to accommodate seniors housing, rental offices, a library and archive, banquet hall, and a community centre. Like every attempt over the years to rehabilitate the centre, this vision was never realized. On the morning of April 13, 2014, an exterior wall on the building collapsed. In July the board filed for bankruptcy, and the building was purchased by a numbered holding company. The plan, which was opposed by the community, was to tear the building down. In November, the Quebec Superior Court sided with the new owner and issued a demolition permit for 2035 Coursol, rejecting an appeal by the borough on the basis of the NCC’s heritage value. In his ruling, the judge criticized the city for its inaction, allowing the building to sit vacant for twenty years. Advocating for the heritage value of the NCC does mark a change in attitude for the City of Montreal. In the Évaluations du patrimoine urbain, published for each borough in 2005, the City did not recognize the existence of the Black community in the South-West. The document’s historique tells the story of a neighbourhood inhabited by a diverse population of French Canadians, Irish Catholics and British Protestants during the second half of the nineteenth century, and where nothing of note happened in the twentieth century except for the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. 2035 Coursol is briefly mentioned, not as a Black community centre, but as a Methodist Church. After the demolition, the mayor of the South-West stated that he was committed to the preservation of the intangible heritage of the site.
After looking at the history of the NCC, which is a story of a series of erasures and dislocations, up to its final demolition, my paper will examine possible futures and ask questions about how to move forward now that the building is gone. What traces of the NCC and its connected histories remain, both in the neighbourhood and in the archives? How can these traces be gathered, not to create an authoritative narrative of Montreal’s Black community, but so the NCC can continue as a site of encounter, of the active process of memory and meaning making? What can the archival photograph tell us about a building that is gone, and how does it fall short, particularly when it comes to memorializing contested histories and complex identities?