When a 'Ground Zero mosque' really is neither

Even in last week's steamy heat, I got the same chill I always get at Ground Zero. The immensity of the physical and emotional hole left by the 9/11 terrorist attack is hard to imagine from afar — you have to actually be there, looking down into the abyss.

But the other thing that's hard to imagine from afar is how the sanctity of the site has nothing to do with anything around it. Even two blocks away.

That is where the so-called Ground Zero mosque is supposed to be built. So-called because it can no more be considered the "Ground Zero mosque" than, say, the existing New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club one more block away could be considered the "Ground Zero Gentlemen's Club."

From the pitched rhetoric of its opponents, though, you'd think a minaret-topped mosque was going to be built right atop the site of the former World Trade Center.

Instead, Park51, as the proposed building would be called, is envisioned as a community center of about 15 stories which, although it would include a mosque for prayer, would also have a swimming pool, an auditorium and other amenities that make it more akin to a YMCA than a dedicated house of worship. And it wouldn't be built anywhere on Ground Zero itself but two blocks to the north.

I was in New York last week, my first visit since the whole mosque controversy erupted, and happened to walk past Ground Zero. While this wasn't a working trip, I had spent a lot of time in the area previously, having covered 9/11 and its aftermath for The Baltimore Sun.

So I can't walk by the site without my own set of memories playing back: the downtown workers and neighbors who saw it all, the planes crashing, the towers exploding and people jumping from impossibly high stories; the desperation of the rescue workers; and, most of all, the heartbreaking experiences of those who waited in vain that day for loved ones to come home.

It is indeed hallowed ground, and no mosque, or any house of worship, belongs there. It should, and will be, the site of a memorial to the dead — who belonged to no one single faith but any number or none of them at all — and new office towers that will restore the site to its former role as part of the living, breathing, working world of Lower Manhattan.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center loomed over nearby neighborhoods and were mostly set apart from them on a vast plaza that interrupted the surrounding street grid. Which is why the proposed site of Park51, while a mere two blocks away from the former plaza's northernmost edge, is really more removed from Ground Zero than you might think.

Part of what makes it seem more distant is simply the scale: On one side of the street, Vesey Street, looms the huge hole in the ground where the 110-story towers fell; on the other, a warren of narrow streets crammed with smaller buildings and storefronts. It is there, on a street called Park Place, where the proposed Muslim center would rise.

While there has been local opposition to the center, there also has been a surprising amount of support, from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, from the community board that represents the Lower Manhattan area and unanimously approved the proposal, even from some of the families of the 9/11 dead. Part of that comes from the fact that the organizers of the center are known quantities in the area — among them, an imam of an existing mosque 12 blocks from Ground Zero and his wife, who have been active participants in interfaith groups and panels devoted to planning the 9/11 memorial and museum.

In fact, as noted in a recent commentary in The New Yorker magazine, it's only as you get farther from Ground Zero that opponents begin to outnumber supporters. A poll found, for example, that a greater percentage of Manhattanites than Staten Islanders supported the Muslim center.

Among the loudest voices are two coming from Alaska and Georgia, or wherever it is Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich are speaking from these days. (Which, come to think of it, is largely in the virtual world, via Twitter or Facebook.)

But here's where the distance thing comes in — the farther away you are, the more Ground Zero is symbol rather than reality.

In New York, it's pretty clear what the boundaries of Ground Zero are — the site is fenced off from the rest of the city. Maybe that's what makes it easier to memorialize 9/11 on one side of the street while carrying on as usual on the other — "usual" in this case being the jumble of a big city in which a Muslim center can be built on the site of a shuttered Burlington Coat Factory store, and, normally, no one would blink.

In fact, if you took everything within several blocks of the former trade center site and considered it part of Ground Zero, you'd have Ground Zero nail salons, Ground Zero fake designer sunglasses stores, Ground Zero places that want to rub your feet and — the reason I was down there last week — the legendary Ground Zero Century 21 discount department store.

None of which disrespects the real Ground Zero.


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