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New, spectacular B.C. community centres shedding stereotypes

Let's face it; insert the word "public" in front of any number of nouns and you end up with something that sounds vaguely substandard, even unpleasant to some ears: public health, public housing, public transit, public pool, public washroom.

You can actually see it – maybe even smell it: peeling turquoise paint, probably containing lead, broken windows, graffiti, smells like bleach and pee.

Bad people who sell drugs can't be far away.

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(And before you say it, I am in no way implying anything negative about my full-time employer, the CBC, which, while it is often referred to as "the public broadcaster," I am very proud to work for, and which is not only not substandard, but hardly ever smells like pee.)

Since the Wikipedia blackout was lifted, I have learned that the word "public" comes from the Latin word for "toilet."

Who knew?

I thought it came from "populous," for "the people" – specifically people who share a common interest.

Then there is the word "community," which includes people who not only share a common interest, but interact as a result of that interest. Think commune, communist, communion.

For me, it brings to life visions of cotton-clad hippies in wire-framed glasses scratching their beards and exchanging cleanse recipes. Or middle-aged women who haven't cut their hair in 12 years and yet, strangely, have a cultish affection for Burt's Bees hair products.

So imagine my surprise when I set eyes upon my neighbourhood's new community centre, which opened to the public this week.

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Growing up, I learned quickly that community centre meant "place where people with no money go." I have a faint recollection of viewing a tattered 16 mm print of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir at the Sandy Hill Community Centre in Ottawa. I remember little more than the mayhem: the shouts of children in a darkened room, the "shushes" of mothers, the clickety-clack of the rickety old projector. And that we apparently won the door prize: a large box of individually wrapped mini bags of Hostess potato chips, which my parents rationed over several months.

The community centre was the place where pottery met poverty.

Where unwed teenage mothers on welfare congregated to learn how to do the impossible.

Where disaffected young people in faded Adidas T-shirts and tattered wide-leg jeans played Ping-Pong and pool until closing time.

Physically they were unremarkable, squat buildings fashioned of the kind of brown brick that would have made architects of Soviet-era housing projects nod with familiarity.

Emotionally, they should have been full of hope and optimism, given their stated goal. But often sadness and desperation hung in the halls. It was a place for people with no place to go.

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My new community centre (mine, because I've already taken ownership) opened this week at Trout Lake. It has taken more than two years to build and has been much anticipated by the community which witnessed the demolition of the squat, brick prototype mentioned above.

My new community centre is vast and beautiful, all curves and asymmetrical lines, carved of concrete, glass and aluminum, with an entrance that practically begs you to come inside.

The interior is airy and open, offering mountain views from many of the rooms, and views of John Hendry Park from others. At night, the lights of Grouse Mountain shimmer in the distance as you exit.

It is the latest in a new wave of grand community centres that have up sprung up across the city.

Four years ago the Sunset Community Centre opened its doors to murmurs of, "This is a community centre?" Bing Thom designed the building; its undulating roof is supposed to mirror the topography of the park in which it is located.

The new Creekside Community Centre, a 2010 legacy project on the former Olympic Village site, may not be quite as architecturally stunning, but it is a LEED platinum building, and it's hard to beat the location.

The Hillcrest Aquatic Centre, also leveraged out of hosting the Olympics (though not cheaply), is attracting visitors from across the Lower Mainland. Not a surprise: It is spectacular.

You can argue that priority has been granted to centres that grabbed Olympic money the fastest, or that politics has somehow influenced how quickly certain community centres will make it to the capital plan.

You can be cynical about a lot of things in this city, but walk through the doors of one of the new facilities, and some of that cynicism will surely melt away.

Are a handful of pretty community centres enough to redeem the idea of "public," so that the word no longer conjures up visions of the substandard? It's a start.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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