Community Near Ground Zero Almost Like Any Other

Supporters of the proposed Islamic community center stand where the building is slated to be built. i i

Supporters of Park51, the proposed Islamic community center, stand outside the former Burlington Coat Factory store where the project is slated to be built. The site has become a small tourist attraction and regularly sparks impromptu debates on the street. Brian Reed for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Reed for NPR
Supporters of the proposed Islamic community center stand where the building is slated to be built.

Supporters of Park51, the proposed Islamic community center, stand outside the former Burlington Coat Factory store where the project is slated to be built. The site has become a small tourist attraction and regularly sparks impromptu debates on the street.

Brian Reed for NPR

According to a new Quinnipiac Poll, about half of New York voters believe Muslims have a right to build a mosque in the neighborhood near ground zero.

But many of the same people say that because the location is so sensitive, developers should voluntarily move a proposed Islamic community center somewhere else.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says that won't work. "The question will then become, 'How big should the no-mosque zone be around the World Trade Center site?' There's already a mosque four blocks away. Should it be moved?" he says.

'Solace' Amid The Commotion

Beyond the controversy, the area just north of the World Trade Center looks a lot like other New York City neighborhoods. It has a Starbucks, some Indian restaurants, a tobacconist and a strip club.

It has a Christian Science Reading room and some churches.

There's also the OTB — the Off-Track Betting facility, where patrons wager on horse races throughout the state. Rick Brown, a lawyer who works in the neighborhood, says this was one of the first places to reopen after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Everybody comes here: politicians, police, soldiers. ... It's a solace in this sea of madness," he says.

The betting facility is less than a block away from the site of the proposed Islamic community center, Park51, which would include a mosque.

The site has become a mini tourist destination. Strangers stopping by actually get into heated arguments about it on the sidewalk.

The commotion doesn't bother Mo Abid. He used to go to an older mosque, Masjid Manhattan, that's just four blocks away from ground zero. But it got so crowded that sometimes people had to pray on the sidewalk. So he started coming here in the past year, after he heard they'd be opening the storefront as an interim mosque.

Before that, Abid says, no one ever raised a fuss. He says there were no protests after Sept. 11.

"I witnessed 9/11. ... We escaped our offices here. I never see anybody give us a hate look," he says.

'Mindful Of It Always'

Masjid Manhattan, the mosque Abid used to go to, was founded in 1970. The people who run it appear to be keeping their distance from any controversy. Their phone number is out of service, and their website has a disclaimer: "Please be advised that we are by no means affiliated with any other organization trying to build anything new in the area of downtown Manhattan."

So far critics seem to not know about Masjid Manhattan, or they give it a pass.

Solomon Baghdadi lives five minutes away from ground zero and works out at the boxing gym next-door to the OTB. He's an attorney, and he agrees that the people planning Park51 have a right to put it wherever they want.

It's just that amid all of the apartment buildings and video stores and pizza joints, this neighborhood now has one defining feature that no other New York neighborhood has, a feature that wasn't there when the first mosque was founded: a big, gaping hole where the World Trade Center used to be.

"It's hard to do anything without really thinking about it because you see it. Even if it's for ... a few seconds, you're mindful of it always," Baghdadi says.

He says he'd feel a lot better about the Islamic center if developers didn't build it so close to ground zero. Canal Street might be OK, he says. That's 14 blocks away.

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