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Controversial Islamic Cultural Center Opens

There was no sign of protest at the Park51 community center last night. It opened its doors to the public in lower Manhattan Wednesday, without the opposition that had surrounded the project for a year.

The center was crowded for most of the evening — with visitors who said they came to see the new photography exhibition and others who were interested in the place itself. Brooklyn's Jean Stevens said she's not surprised the event went off without a hitch.

"It seems like there's not much of huge response to this reception or to the mosque anymore, and so I wonder whether if people have forgotten it now that its not such a hot topic."

At the space, which was still raw looking, visitors mixed, while viewing the exhibit on New York’s children, and listening to tunes played by the New York Arab orchestra. But unlike most art events, they didn’t swill wine to stay in accord with Muslim practices.

The only remnants of the controversy that has surrounded the project was a police officer and patrol car stationed outside the large glass windows on Park Place.

Opponents had argued against having a mosque so close to the World Trade center site.

The developer of Park51, Sharif El-Gamal, said he wishes victims' families had been involved earlier — before the center became a point of contention.

But Rosaleen Tallon who lost her brother in the World Trade Center attacks said she and many other family members still oppose the project. “El Gamal is going to sing any tune to get what he wants to done….it’s smoke and mirrors at this point.”

But she said she wasn’t moved to come out and protest the opening. "It’s so soon after a raw anniversary, we're trying to go back to our lives. If we thought the opening was big step, we’d do more."

El-Gamal said he hopes to raise $7 to $10 million over the next year to expand the center and mosque into a 15 story building that would include  educational programs, a restaurant and a wellness center.

He conceded that ultimately, “the project will be as big or as small as the community wants.”

Julie Menin, Chairwoman of Community Board 1 said she thinks its important that the doors of the center are now open to the public, and she believes the center is about more than location.

"I know that the subject obviously causes a lot of divided emotions all across the city and across the country, but we always need to stand up for the rights of every single religion to worship in the place that they see fit."

Joyce Oliver, who works at a nearby bank, said she’s glad there were no sign of protests. She said the center and mosque is just like another spot in the busy neighborhood.

"They come, they pray, nothing has happened, so I don't see what the issue should be. It’s historical building so let it be used."

Preparing the ribbon for the official ribbon cutting at Park51.
Preparing the ribbon for the official ribbon cutting at Park51. ( Kathleen Horan )
NY Arab Orchestra, including 15 members playing the oud, strings, Arabic percussion and woodwind instruments, perform.
NY Arab Orchestra, including 15 members playing the oud, strings, Arabic percussion and woodwind instruments, perform. ( Kathleen Horan )
Not quite a velvet rope, but door staff kept the crowd to 200 and those considered VIPs entered first.
Not quite a velvet rope, but door staff kept the crowd to 200 and those considered VIPs entered first. ( Kathleen Horan )
Police presence included one officer stationed outside and a squad car that was there for much of the day and night.
Police presence included one officer stationed outside and a squad car that was there for much of the day and night. ( Kathleen Horan )
Media was also present at the opening.
Media was also present at the opening. ( Kathleen Horan )
The center also includes a mosque.
The center also includes a mosque. ( Kathleen Horan )
Donation boxes were scattered througout the center.
Donation boxes were scattered througout the center. ( Kathleen Horan )
Park51 Chairman and developer Sharif El-Gamal
Park51 Chairman and developer Sharif El-Gamal ( Kathleen Horan )
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