Tuesday, August 24, 2010

St. Nick Wants Mosque's Urgency

Before his legacy got hijacked by pop culture and Christmas retailers, Saint Nicholas had been the revered patron saint for sailors, bankers, and bakers. An unlikely mix, to be sure, but in the oft-confounding streets of Lower Manhattan, where slimy wharves once notched the ends of streets lined with - among other things - banks and bakeries, it all somehow made sense.

For decades, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church huddled in the rowdy streets hear the Hudson River piers. Its lithe white-stucco structure dated back to the 1830's, and its congregation to 1916. As Lower Manhattan evolved, and neighboring buildings were torn down for construction of the World Trade Center, parking lots eventually engulfed the tiny church, although Tower Two soared just a couple hundred feet away. It unwittingly became part of Ground Zero as the World Trade Center's obliteration literally pulverized St. Nick's into dust.

Ever since September 12, 2001, the Greek Orthodox community in North America has been quietly trying to rebuild their precious little sanctuary at Ground Zero. While their congregation meets in loaned space over in Brooklyn, church leaders have been wrangling with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey over the fate of their site. When the Port Authority condemned whole blocks of Lower Manhattan to construct the World Trade Center (WTC) back in the late 1960's, it stopped just short of taking St. Nicholas, but what the Port Authority didn't do then, it's doing now.

Replacing the Only Church at Ground Zero

Obviously, redevelopment at Ground Zero has proven to be a herculean undertaking. Even without its political showdowns, economic downturns, and psychological stigma, the sheer logistical conundrums of physically rebuilding the WTC can boggle the mind. Not only is the Port Authority trying to reclaim its stake in one of the world's most prestigious corporate centers, it's trying to do so in the face of two terrorist attacks at the site and despite the complexities of building anything larger than a windowbox on Manhattan Island.

For the past nine years, the Greeks and the Port Authority have tried to craft an agreement that would re-establish St. Nicholas Church on the southern flanks of the WTC site, near where it had been before. Nobody has officially suggested the church should not return. Claims that St. Nicholas has been overlooked in the cacophony over designs for the Freedom Tower, 9-11 memorial, and the PATH train station probably have some merit, but the Greeks have patiently allowed these larger issues to be hashed out.

Indeed, the entire site has had to be re-imagined, not just for the office buildings, shopping mall, commuter rail line, and mass transit terminal, but also for the new memorial and various security measures which need to be incorporated into the mix. And apparently, it's those beefed-up security measures that have posed a big part of the delay in getting St. Nicholas re-built.

Understandably, the Port Authority needs to have a new, sophisticated vehicle safety checkpoint on-site before any passenger vehicle or commercial truck can enter what will be a labyrinthine underground parking structure. This vehicle checkpoint will require long ramps and other design features which will take up a lot of space. And a possible location chosen by the Port Authority for all of this vehicular screening is - you guessed it - the southern side of the Ground Zero site. Just below where St. Nicholas used to sit.

This appears to be where the two sides have reached a stalemate, because the Greeks used to own the land under their church, but in the Port Authority's scenario, they wouldn't. Not only would St. Nicholas not own their land, but they'd be sitting on top of a security zone which, potentially, could explode to smithereens in the event of yet another terrorist strike. While admittedly, it's unlikely somebody would try to blow up the underground vehicle screening zone, nobody anticipated planes crashing into both towers, either. A very sobering consideration, indeed.

Muslims Get Attention While Greeks Wait

So why can't the Greeks simply move someplace else? That's the same question that's been asked of the Muslim developers at 51 Park Place. But unlike the plans for the "Ground Zero mosque", St. Nicholas simply wants to come home. They also have taken a decidedly neutral stance on the Islamic rec center proposed for their neighborhood, unlike the liberal Trinity Episcopal Church at the head of Wall Street, which was hardly damaged on 9/11 and is welcoming the Muslims with open arms.

No, the Greeks have been waiting in their borrowed Brooklyn quarters, watching the acrimony over the "Ground Zero mosque" grow ever more heated, wondering how many more years it will take before their own worship space can be restored at the WTC site.

They did get some political firepower in their corner yesterday, when former New York governor George Pataki held a press conference with St. Nicholas leadership, pressing for the Port Authority to work harder at accommodating the Greeks. St. Nicholas officials expressed hope that the attention being focused on the "Ground Zero mosque" might spill over into their own little bucket of need, and help provide some impetus for themselves and the Port Authority to finally find some common ground.

After all, as Pataki hinted, if New York's current governor can find state land to swap with the Muslims for relocating their rec center, surely something can be done to help out St. Nicholas, which has been waiting to rebuild for nearly a decade.

It seems as if things have to get political before lawmakers want to get involved these days. Especially in New York. Since the Port Authority is jointly owned by the states of New York and New Jersey, elected officials could have stepped in at any time within the past nine years to help iron out differences and protect St. Nick's rights. Why does it take Muslims proposing a grand mosque near Ground Zero before the Greeks can finally hope for some satisfaction in their own post 9-11 travails?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg waxes eloquent about religious freedom and different faiths being able to build anywhere they want in the capital of the world.

Yo, Mike! Try telling that to the Greeks!

Update 8/26/10: Now that the press is starting to re-examine the St. Nick impasse, new information is coming to light. Click here for more information.

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