By RFE RL
By Nikola Krastev for RFE/RL
If not for the police car constantly parked out front, the Islamic community center two blocks from the former site of New York’s World Trade Center would hardly be noticed.
Inconspicuously named after its downtown location, “Park51” occupies a 19th-century industrial building that formerly housed a coat factory.
But what its developers envision is a $100 million, 15-story, modernistic structure that becomes a major multifaith cultural institution.
That vision provides contrasts stark with events of a year ago, when the idea of building a Muslim center and mosque in the vicinity of the 9/11 attacks stirred public passions in New York City and across the country.
Last year, around the ninth anniversary of the attacks, major demonstrations and counterdemonstrations were held over the development that has been dubbed “The Ground Zero Mosque” by its critics.
“There are many mosques in New York City,” says Michael Giddins, a 30-year-old freelance writer from Brooklyn who rallied in support of Park51 because, he says, tolerance toward all religions is the clearest example of democracy in the United States. “This is not a mosque, this is a recreational center, and the furor over it is caused [by] right-wing politics and right-wing media. That’s the only reason why people are upset about it.”
But Alicia Negron, a 52-year-old real-estate broker from Connecticut, says building a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero is an insult to the memory of those who perished in the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out by young Muslims who hijacked four passenger aircraft and used them as killing machines in a plan hatched and organized by Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.
“There is a large number of Americans who are opposed to the mosque being built here by a sacred place like Ground Zero,” Negron says. “Just because it’s OK to do it doesn’t mean it is right. And this is not right.”
One year later, although the controversy has not ebbed away entirely, Park51 is quietly blending into the neighborhood.
The center organizes Arabic-language classes for kids, book and poetry readings, lectures on various aspects of Islamic culture and on the threat of Islamophobia, film screenings, and yoga classes.
The promotional brochure for Park51 says it intends to “establish a positive profile for Muslim cultures in the United States.”
There has also been an attempt to include people of other faiths in the center’s activities. New York-born Jewish photographer Danny Goldfield was invited to host its inaugural photo exhibit.
Plans for Park51 are being modeled after the city’s popular Jewish Cultural Center in uptown Manhattan.
Erica Werber, senior director of public relations and social media at the Jewish center, says representatives of Park51 have visited to discuss program offerings.
“The way they’re saying they’re basing it on us is the way we plan our programming and the way our building is structured, the way we set up classrooms and our pool and our locker room and things like that,” Werber says. “It’s not based on anything religious or political.”
One of the counterdemonstrations in September 2010 condemning the efforts to prevent planners from creating the Muslim community center at “Park 51.”
But Park51 is also facing some obstacles.
There are reports of a rental dispute with Con Edison, the New York City utility company, over unpaid rent. Con Edison owns half of the loft space where the Islamic Center is planned. Both entities are now in legal proceedings.
It is also unclear whether Park51 will receive tax-exempt status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, which would designate it as a nonprofit institution. Recent moves on the part of the developers suggesting possible commercial development on the site may hinder those efforts.
Still, Sharif El-Gamal, the principal developer of Park51, says that if commercial development is prohibited, the mosque will still be built.