The controversial mosque and Muslim community center planned at a site 600 feet away from Ground Zero is forcing New York City residents and public officials to decide how they want to remember and interpret the tragedy of 9/11. The project is known as Park51 or the Cordoba House, named after the City of Cordoba in Spain, where a thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life. The vision for the buildings at 45-47 Park Place (to be given the new address of 51 Park Place) is to create for Muslim New Yorkers and other city residents a 100,000 square foot facility similar to a Young Chrisian Men’ Association (YMCA) or Jewish Community Center (JCC) with rooms for interfaith dialogue, Muslim prayer areas, a 9/11 memorial, an auditorium, and recreation spaces.
The Cordoba House is spearheaded by prominent Muslim Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf who ran a mosque for twenty-seven years just twelve blocks away from Ground Zero, his wife Daisy Khan who is the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Sharif El-Gamal who is a New York City developer, and The Cordoba Initiative, a group that “aims to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions.” Imam Rauf already owns the buildings at 45-47 Park, and now needs to work with his development team to raise $100 million for the project.
Not surprisingly, many New Yorkers have protested this project and feel that such a plan for the site is inconsiderate and “a gross insult to the memory of those killed on that terrible day.” The NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee unanimously voted not to grant the current buildings at 45-47 Park Place landmark status or historic protection in a vote of 9-0 at an emotionally-charged public hearing on August 3, 2010. This decision allows for the existing structures to be demolished in order to make way for the new Muslim community center. At the hearing, participants made statements such as: “Allowing the mosque to move forward is a victory for terrorists.” Others argued: “Allowing the mosque to move forward is constitutional, a way to educate the American public about Islam, and serve Muslims who are also American citizens.” The Boston Globe asks, “Will a mosque at ground zero make reconciliation more likely? Or will it needlessly rub salt in the unhealed wounds of 9/11?”
First of all, the mosque is not at ground zero as the media loves to say, it is near ground zero. Secondly, people seem to forget that individuals of all religions including innocent Muslims suffered from 9/11.
This debate over the location of the Muslim community center so close to where terrorists claimed to act in the name of Islam has attracted the views of political and religious leaders, victims’ families, scholars, and NYC residents. At the end, the result will have a lasting impact on all New Yorkers, but especially upon the estimated 600,000 Muslim residents in New York and its suburbs. There have been well-established Muslim communities living and practicing their faith only blocks from Ground Zero for the last thirty years, but their placement in the neighborhood is being questioned now.
This dilemma is not really just about the siting of a mosque. It is about a City coming to terms with the tragedy of 9/11 and how they perceive, remember, and heal from it. But, who fairly convenes that discussion? If there are enough voices on all sides, maybe we can actually have a useful dialogue, clear up misunderstandings, and move forward.
What is an urban planner’s role in the debate over the mosque near Ground Zero? Are planners supposed to remain unbiased and simply explain the zoning rules, land-use laws and development processes for the site? Or should planners pick a side and advocate for it? Rather, should planners be objective mediators among all the different groups with varying perspectives, and help build consensus? If the Cordoba House gets built, what will this new building really symbolize and mean to the City of New York?
Aditi Mehta completed her Master in City Planning degree from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning in May 2010 with a specialization in Housing, Community, and Economic Development. Her other series on CoLab Radio include Who’s on Broad? and The Library and Society.