It was startling to see Mike Bloomberg, head chief billionaire-in-charge, not known for effusive expressions of municipal compassion, on the verge of a public tear. The mayor, in what must be counted as the singular emotional policy statement of his nine years in office, was speaking on Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty stationed directly behind him. “Millions of immigrants” had arrived in this harbor over the past 250 years, Bloomberg said, his monotone surreally close to cracking, and it was no different today. New York remained “the freest city in the world.” Political controversies would “come and go but our values and traditions endure—and there is no neighborhood in this city off limits to God’s love and mercy.”
The impetus for the atypical mayoral oratory was, of course, the now-national furor over the planned Muslim-American community center at 45–51 Park Place, at the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory, two and a half blocks from where the September 11, 2001, terror attacks took place. It has been such a long slog with this, the issues over whether Muslims reciting prayers in such proximity to the scene of the horrific crime constituted an unforgivable lack of respect, the First Amendment arguments over religious freedom, the unruly Community Board meetings, President Obama’s carefully parsed half-endorsement, Abe Foxman, and some of the most overheated blogological rhetoric seen on these shores since the Draft Riots, much of it so flat-out racist as to read like kiddie porn. Yet with people like Sarah Palin “refudiating” and Newt Gingrich likening the “radical Islamist” organizers of the so-called ground-zero mosque to Nazis scheming “to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum,” this wasn’t exactly an issue on which the mayor of New York could remain silent. After all, isn’t this the story we tell about ourselves, true or not: that here, all immigrant groups should get a fair shake and get to worship whatever god they happen to believe in, whenever and wherever they like?
That said, when this proud son of Queens, someone who was there the day the towers crumbled, breathing in the dust of bodies that only hours before had been walking and talking, first heard of the plan to locate a thirteen-story Islamic center near the WTC site, my initial thought was: Now, that is one really stupid idea!
Why stir up all those ghosts, revisit the horror of those sad days? Was this the best way for the Muslim-American community to stitch itself into the grand mosaic of the city, to demonstrate that the followers of Islam were regulation Jills and Joes like the next caterwauling Yankee fan? I mean, how clueless, how tone-deaf could you be?
When I expressed this sentiment to Sharif El-Gamal, the owner of 45–51 Park Place, a nicely turned out, urbane 37-year-old real-estate man who has been buying and selling buildings in Manhattan for the past dozen years, he shook his head with a barely restrained impatience.
“Listen,” said El-Gamal, “do you have any clue how the Manhattan real-estate market works, what is involved? People seem to think that we picked that building to make some kind of point. But that is simply insane. This is New York; no matter who you are, you just don’t choose a building, move in, and take over. Do you know how many places I looked at? I looked at Chambers Street. I looked at Vesey Street, Broadway, Greenwich Street, Warren Street, Murray Street. Maybe half a dozen more, I can’t even remember now. It was only after all that that Park Place came up. Even then, it was the most grueling negotiation of my life. So many times I told myself, Wow, this just isn’t worth it. One minute the deal was on, eight months later it was off. The whole thing almost drove me nuts.”
But didn’t he think twice before buying a building so close to ground zero? Didn’t he suspect that he was putting himself at the center of a hornets’ nest?
“No,” said El-Gamal, who was born at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn and, after some world travels in the company of his father, a Chemical Bank executive, attended New Hyde Park High School in Nassau County. “It never entered my mind,” he said. “Not for a second.”
The story of how he came to 45–51 Park Place began on 9/11, Sharif El-Gamal said. “I was eating in a diner at 61st and Second Avenue when I heard about the planes, and I just started going down there. Everyone was going the other way, but I kept walking. Someone had attacked my country, my city. All I wanted to do was to see if I could help. I was down there for two days. I saw things I couldn’t believe. I wound up in the hospital because the dust affected my eyes. It was after that, I just felt like praying. We weren’t a religious family; a couple of holy days, that was it. I worked downtown, so I started going to a mosque on Warren Street. After a while I stopped in at the Masjid al-Farah on West Broadway, where I met Imam Feisal for the first time. I knew he had been there for a long time, twenty years or more, but I never heard him speak. His sermons were what I was looking for, beautiful, sincere, but American. I thought, finally, an American Imam, someone who talks to me as an American. But the place was so small. It had a 70-person capacity. You could hardly get in. After the Jumu’ah, which is what we call Friday prayers, I went up to Imam Feisal and told him how much I enjoyed his sermon and that it was too bad only 70 people could hear it at a time. He just smiled and thanked me.