President Obama and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg have defended the building of the community center by invoking the First Amendment. “The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are,” the president declared.
Republican conservatives, like former House speaker Newt Gingrich and current House minority leader John A. Boehner, have based their opposition to the center on their concern for the feelings of those who lost loved ones on 9/11. “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in New York,” Gingrich said by way of analogy.
But what both sides have not bothered doing is asking how an Islamic center would actually fit into the neighborhood around Ground Zero. That’s not a lofty question, but if you walk the streets around the World Trade Center neighborhood, as I did the other week, the question of whether to build the center take on a concrete reality.
My sidewalk tour shows that the center, named “Park51,” would fit quite well. It also shows that what’s more worthy of objection are the slew of sleazy businesses in the neighborhood – stores that should give pause to those who see ground zero locale as hallowed, sacred ground.
Park Place, where the proposed Muslim center would go, is currently an unimpressive street. The site for the Islamic center is a crumbling Italianate-style building, to which New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to give historic protection by a 9-0 vote.
By contrast, Park51, a $100 million, thirteen-story glass and steel structure (the opposite of a traditional mosque with minarets) would add some luster to Park Place, but it would still be unnoticed by people going in and out of the buildings at the World Trade Center. Blocking the view of the proposed Muslim Community Center is the massive Federal Office Building just across the street from the World Trade Center.
Even more significant, the Muslim community center would not be a blight on the neighborhood surrounding the World Trade Center. That neighborhood has two of New York’s most architecturally-important churches. One is Trinity Church, a classic example of 19th-century Gothic revival. The other is St. Paul’s Chapel, the city’s oldest surviving church and its finest model of Georgian architecture (it was modeled after St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields in London). George Washington worshipped there and it became a refuge for rescue workers after 9/11.
But the World Trade Center neighborhood is also filled with eyesores. When I walked from Park Place on the north side of the World Trade Center to Rector Street on the south side, what I encountered were a string of bars, betting parlors, and fast-food restaurants. And within this cluster of buildings, especially noticeable were two strip clubs, the New York Dolls Gentleman’s Club and the Pussycat Lounge, plus Thunder Lingerie and More, a sex shop with a peep show.
This kind of commercial mix is typical of New York. Most of us who have lived in the city for any period of time take it for granted. But for those who have based their opposition to the Muslim Center on their concern for the sensibilities of the 9/11 families, places like the New York Dolls and the Pussycat Lounge present a moral dilemma.
Why are they treated with a live-and-let-live tolerance that doesn’t extend to an Islamic center? How, as a practical matter, are pole dancers less of an affront to the memory of the 9/11 dead than a community center that will have prayer space, a 500-seat auditorium, and a bookstore?
Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and co-editor with Michael Walzer of “Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq.