Islamic Cultural Center Opens Near Ground Zero

The first phase of the Islamic Cultural Center near the World Trade Center has opened. Detractors have called it the ground zero mosque. As part of the opening for the Park51 center, invited guests got to see a photo exhibit of children from more than 160 countries who live in New York City.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host: Backers of an Islamic cultural center are millions of dollars away from constructing the building near the site of the World Trade Center, but yesterday the cultural center opened its doors in a temporary space. After all the debate over an Islamic center near Ground Zero, the public was allowed to visit the site, and what New Yorkers saw was photos of other New Yorkers. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: The old Burlington Coat Factory at 51 Park Place is where developer Sharif El-Gamal hopes to build the Islamic Cultural Center, inspired by the Jewish community center uptown. Park 51 has been mired in controversy, protests and the grandstanding of politicians. But except for demonstrations during the 10th anniversary of 9/11, things have been quiet of late. Muslim services do take place there, often attracting several hundred worshippers. There are Arabic classes and interfaith meetings. But last night, after a $70,000 renovation and a ribbon-cutting...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ADLER: ...the ground floor space opened to the public at large.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ADLER: Several hundred invited guests came last night to this first event. A small orchestra played Middle Eastern music on traditional instruments. And there was a photo exhibit, which opens to the public today and continues for three months. The pictures are by Danny Goldfield. They are portraits of children from 169 countries, all of whom live in New York City. Goldfield said he got the idea for the project after coming across flowers, candles, a makeshift memorial in front of a gas station in Mesa, Arizona.

DANNY GOLDFIELD: And I met the owner of the gas station, Rana Sodhi, and he told me that the memorial was for his brother.

ADLER: Balbir Sohdi, a Sikh wearing a turban who was murdered outside the gas station in a hate crime four days after 9/11. Rana Sodhi told Goldfield this experience made him want to know his neighbors, feeling that would increase his own protection in the community.

GOLDFIELD: And I just found this to be an incredibly brave way of dealing with such an intense loss. And so I was driving that night and I was thinking a lot about his simple prescription to make the world safer - meeting neighbors.

ADLER: And from that came the idea to photograph a child from every country in the world who lives in New York City. Goldfield went to different neighborhoods, phone card stores, restaurants, immigrant service organizations. Now he has 169 photos of children from different countries and is working to get at least two dozen more. He met Sharif El-Gamal, helped out in the renovation, and the ground floor of Park 51 now looks like an art gallery. Gamal, the developer of Park 51, is clearly hoping that this event will showcase the cultural center and be a springboard to fundraising.

SHARIF EL-GAMAL: We can start demystifying what our goals and our hopes for Park 51 are. Now the real work begins.

ADLER: And he says this will make a difference for the many who peer in from outside.

EL-GAMAL: You know, we get hundreds of tourists that just congregate in front of the building. They want to see what the Muslims are doing.

ADLER: Now they'll get to come inside. A young man, Danny Garcia-McGuire, described himself as Irish and Puerto Rican. He said the pictures were a symbol of tolerance.

DANNY GARCIA-MCGUIRE: It's a celebration of diversity and people coming together.

ADLER: There were no demonstrations outside Park 51 last night. Pamela Geller, who's been one of the main organizers against having any mosque near Ground Zero, wrote on her blog that this opening - hanging some pictures of kids on the ground floor - was pathetic. When I asked Danny Goldfield, look, you're clearly Jewish, have people come up to you and been angry that you're supporting the center, he replied...

GOLDFIELD: I don't really care to pass judgment on them. That's just not what I'm about. I'd be happy to meet them. I'd be happy for them to come in and see the exhibit. I mean, it's open to everyone.

ADLER: And the people who are opposed to the center, says Goldfield, those are the people I want to come here more than anyone. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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