As the number of first generation Italian immigrants in Vancouver decreases, the city’s Italian Cultural Centre – Il Centro – is planning for a future led by successive generations with support from the non-Italian community.
Il Centro is developing a revitalization plan to offer new public facilities and services to community members.
As part of this project, the centre has started to engage in a community consultation process. About 250 people participated in the Il Centro Ideas Fair in October, which was intended to gather input from the public for future construction on the four and a half acre property.
Mauro Vescera, executive director for Il Centro, says the revitalization of the 38-year-old centre will transform it from a cultural centre into a community centre by adding various amenities such as a cinema, theatre, daycare, exhibit space and commercial space, as well as room to expand the Westside Montessori Academy located on the property.
The project’s architecture and development team are working on drawings to present back to the organization’s members for a vote in April or May of 2016, Vescera explains.
“This part of East Vancouver is a little bit underserved and they certainly love the idea of … building something for the community.”
Some of II Centro’s older members are, “quite attached to the building” he says, adding, “we’ve got three buildings here, two of them are kinda ready to go.”
“At this time I can’t say yes it will be knocked down, or no it won’t be knocked down. It’s likely some of it will go down, but we’re not sure which pieces and when, because it’ll be a phased project,” Vescera explains.
He says the city is supportive of the project.
“This part of East Vancouver is a little bit underserved and they certainly love the idea of a non-profit organization building something for the community.”
Understanding the new generation
Anna Terrana, Il Centro’s former vice-president and the president and executive director of the Italian Cultural Centre Society from 1980 to 1993, says that the centre has a history.
“I don’t agree with destroying anything of what has been built before,” she says.
“They seem not to want to deal with the past and it’s a mistake because without the past you cannot build the future and they will lose the support of many people in the community.”
Terrana encourages young people to have their say in what they would like to see included in the centre. So far, she is on board with a lot of the new ideas for the renewal.
“I don’t agree with destroying anything of what has been built before.”
She makes note of the Italian Cultural Institute, which offered cultural events and language courses in Vancouver, closing last year.
“The Italian government decided that they were going to get rid of it unfortunately so [Il Centro] is the only entity inside [Vancouver] that can continue with our culture.”
Gabriella Luongo teaches Italian classes and runs a youth group at the centre. She says expanding the opportunities for youth to volunteer beyond cultural activities has helped keep them engaged with the centre.
One of these initiatives includes youth working with the City of Vancouver Park Board on the Still Creek rehabilitation and enhancement project. The creek runs through the centre’s property and youth volunteers cleared debris from its banks to improve water flow.
Luongo says Il Centro has also begun hosting a farmers’ market on every third Friday of the month called MERCATO: Italian Market. In 2014, it broke ground on a community garden at Beaconsfield Park.
“We’re more than just maybe strictly cultural, but we’re also active in the community and I think that entices people,” she says.
Remaining connected to Italian roots
In 2014, Il Centro partnered with the organizers of Italian Day on the Drive to support a motion from Vancouver city councillor Melissa De Genova to officially designate the nearby Commercial Drive area as “Little Italy”.
“We’re more than just maybe strictly cultural.”
Council approved the motion, but Vescera says a community consultation is being conducted. He expects the area to be formally recognized as “Little Italy” during Italian Day on the Drive, which is held in June to celebrate Italian Heritage Month.
Luongo says the centre continues to provide support for new Italian immigrants including hosting a dinner on Dec. 23.
“A lot of them actually become our teachers at work because they were teachers in Italy, but here [their] qualifications aren’t recognized so they’ve been working with the Italian language classes.”
Looking to the future, Vescera says the centre would form an agreement with the project’s developer, Bosa Properties, to sell a portion of the 200 to 400 apartment units in the marketplace to cover construction costs; the remainder would generate revenue for the centre.
Il Centro would apply for government grants to pay for amenities such as gymnasiums, theatres and cinemas. He says loans would cover the rest of the costs and would be repaid using funds from the centre’s catering business, amenities, school and property rentals.
“It has to make sense so that five or 10 years from now our goal is that the Italian Cultural Centre will be financially sustainable, culturally vibrant and engaged with the community,” he says.