Thursday, July 15, 2010

Zero Ground for Mosque?

Well, I’ve kinda gotta agree with the folks who have no problem declaring Manhattan’s 51 Park Place historically insignificant.

Never heard of 51 Park Place? That’s because the Muslims who own it used to call it “Cordoba House,” until their plans for building a mosque and community center at the site hit the fan. According to the New York Daily News, organizers of the effort to replace a 152-year-old five-story building with a $100 million, 13-story Islamic-centric facility changed the project’s name after a contentious hearing before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Tuesday.

Contentious, because the proposed site sits a mere two blocks north of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

While it’s used to being the target of public ire, the LPC has found itself in the difficult – and unwarranted – position of being the last line of defense between advocacy groups fiercely opposed to the Muslims’ plans and the Muslims themselves, who claim that the building they want to raze has no historic merit.

Unwarranted, because this issue is larger than what the LPC has the power to decide.

It's a Pretty Unremarkable Building

For the LPC, their decision centers solely on the legitimacy of designating a forlorn, poorly-maintained, ubiquitously old-fashioned structure worthy of salvaging. And it’s a tough call. Granted, at 152 years old, some cities across America would automatically grandfather it in, but at over 400 years old, New York City isn’t bereft of old buildings. Although its address sounds auspicious, Park Place has been whittled down to a mere couple of dark, congested blocks, with its only claim to fame being its anchor skyscraper, the exquisite Woolworth Building, at its intersection with Broadway. It's namesake, City Hall Park, also sits nearby.

Perhaps some historical interest might be that Merck Pharmaceutical Company used to be headquartered in the building during the 1920’s. It’s most recent use, however, was as a store for Burlington Coat Factory. Today, the building sits vacant and shuttered.

Although the LPC has granted landmark status to some questionable buildings in the past, there doesn’t appear to be much for them to decide when it comes to 51 Park Place. Theirs seems to be a final formality before the Muslims get the green light.

Which, since I personally oppose any official establishment of Islam near Ground Zero, makes the end of the road that much more dismaying. It's not the LPC’s place to render a political or religious pronouncement based on the assumed re-use of the site. All of the other community boards with jurisdiction in the matter have already allowed it to progress through New York City’s complex approval process, mostly because there’s little legal reason for them not to.

At 13 stories, the structure won’t be any more detrimental to the already-scarce daylight concerns that environmentalists might have. If the building wasn’t able to capture a viable tenant’s interest during Manhattan’s recently-ended boom years, at what point do its owners have the right to redevelop it – or sell out to someone who will? And although two blocks puts it close to the World Trade Center (WTC) site, it's still far enough way to be visibly obscured.

Respecting History

But what about the Muslim tradition of building houses of worship atop ruins of places they’ve vanquished? What about the domestic terrorism target such a building would present in the crowded canyons of Lower Manhattan, near City Hall and a newly-reconstructed WTC? What about the sheer audacity of having a recreational and religious Islamic center mere blocks from where buffoons acting in the name of Allah destroyed one of the world’s largest business centers and killed almost 3,000 people?

I’ve never supported the assertion that Ground Zero is hallowed ground. Just because so many people were killed in such an atrocious attack there, and since so many human remains were never found, the World Trade Center site is not a military battleground, national cemetery, or perpetual memorial.

I’d worked, shopped, toured, commuted from, and dined at the original World Trade Center. Although its architecture bordered on the dubious, and its origins stemmed from harebrained egotism by the Rockefeller family and monopolistic state agencies, it proved to be a vibrant, essential, and iconic part of Manhattan, and indeed, the entire harbor region.

Ever since September 12, 2001, I’ve believed that the original WTC – or at least, the Twin Towers – should have been rebuilt as closely to its original as possible, with exceptions made for improving traffic flow (a design flaw which became apparent after the center first opened). This would have been the best way to not only reinvigorate a shaken Financial District, but also save money and time by avoiding all of the silly design competitions and political wrangling that inevitably railroaded redevelopment.

Perhaps most importantly, though, restoring the Twin Towers would signal to America’s enemies that you may spite us, but we’re just going to pick up where we left off and keep going. All you’re doing by killing our people is making heroes out of them and fools out of yourselves. Oh yeah; and all those virgins your imams tell you are awaiting you in the afterlife? They’re all men.

(OK, I didn’t think up that last bit – I heard it from some comedian.)

Doing the Right Thing

My point is that yes, Ground Zero has become too important and symbolic a site for a mosque and Islamic rec center to be built in such proximity. A sacred site Ground Zero is not, but profoundly significant nevertheless. If Muslims had any respect for what Americans and lovers of freedom the world over endured on 9/11, they would never have proposed to flaunt the same religion revered by 9/11’s perpetrators so close to the location of one of the world’s most prominent Islamic attack sites.

Yet it’s not for the LPC to tell the Muslims that. And quite frankly, they shouldn’t further exacerbate this dispute by doing so. Unless somebody can dig up something about 51 Park Place at the 11th hour that makes it intrinsically important to the history of Manhattan Island, then the LPC’s decision seems pretty clear.

But theirs won’t be the shame. The shame rests squarely on the Muslims who advocate such a disrespectful and celebratory display of religious self-aggrandizement.

If they genuinely want to establish a place of religious tolerance near the WTC, the Islamic proponents who want a mosque at 51 Park Place should revoke their plans for tearing down the building they’ve bought, and if they absolutely must, construct a simple religious center inside the existing structure instead.

The remainder of their $100 million should go to help our federal government pay the restitution settlement for 9/11 victims.

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