There’s a bar called Big Chicks—a gay bar—on the north side of Chicago, around the corner from an Orthodox synagogue. They share an alley and have been civil neighbors for 25 years.
I thought about how great cities mix random lives in the current controversy over allowing a mosque and Islamic community center to move into an abandoned coat factory that is two blocks from the site that always be called Ground Zero, where 3,000 people died in the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Two blocks can cover a lot in a great city. Two blocks in lower Manhattan are not the same as two blocks in Manhattan, Kansas. In New York, two blocks can seem to take in the world.
Great cities have wild landscapes. The Lemongrass Thai Restaurant can be right next to the Iglesia Hispana Evangelica, just across from the B’nai Baruch Kebbeleh Center, the Flying Kick Taekwando School, Ali’s Roti Shop, the Manhandler Saloon, and Pinky’s Nail Salon.
My wife and I fell in love in lower Manhattan, in the small streets where Chinatown melts into Little Italy. We walked and talked for hours past the over-stuffed Asian food stalls, Latin markets, Italian bakeries, and men in high boots bearing huge, bewhiskered fish. She led me down a twisting alley into a building that thrummed with the clack of mah-jongg tiles and the keening of Chinese opera.
It’s an old New York story: people from different places who, in the words of the Sondheim song, suddenly "find each other in the crowded streets . . ."
When the attacks of September 11th struck, we felt it personally, as any American would. We walked and sobbed in the awful, incredible silence of the streets.
We stood along Canal Street and cheered emergency workers going in and out to Ground Zero. We remember—we will never forget—the "thousand yard stare" in their eyes, as soldiers call it. We left flowers at the local fire and police station, for men and women who risked and gave their lives. And one day, we will tell our children how we looked into hundreds of faces, photocopied and flapping from a wall alongside Trinity Church, posted by loved ones asking, "Have you seen my husband?" Or mother, wife, or boyfriend.
I think of this now, nine years later, because I doubt that New Yorkers will cringe if Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf decides to develop that lower Manhattan site into a mosque and community center. After all the politicians and pundits have scored their points, I think that mosque will just melt into the city, beside noodle shops, nail salons, houses of worship, gay bars and coffee shops. Nine years after the assaults that were meant to demolish and demean it, New York still takes in the world.