There Has Been a Mosque Near Ground Zero Since 1970 – Same Year the World Trade Center Opened

Design concept for Cordoba House
Design concept for Park 51
I lived four blocks east of the World Trade Center in the 1980s, so I’ve followed the controversy about Park 51, formerly known as Cordoba House, the new Islamic center being built two blocks north of the trade center at Park Place, with insider-y interest.

I found an unexpected source for tapping into local attitudes about Park 51 on Andrew Sullivan’s site, the Daily Dish, where people from my old neighborhood have been posting comments about the project. The clincher was this factoid that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been surprising: A mosque, Masjid Manhattan, has been holding services on Warren Street, four blocks north of the World Trade Center, for the last 40 years. (It’s about a block west of the Tweed Courthouse, if you know the area.) From the mosque’s website:

Our members are city, state and federal employees, as well as professional employees of the Financial [District] who come to our Masjid to perform their daily prayers. Masjid Manhattan and its members condemn any type of terrorist acts. In particular, the attacks of 9/11 where non-Muslims as well as Muslims lost their lives.

(UPDATE: Masjid Manhattan includes this disclaimer on its website: “Please be advised that we are by no means affiliated with any other organization trying to build anything new in the area of downtown Manhattan.”)

It is significant that Masjid Manhattan was started in 1970 because the World Trade Center also opened at the end of that year. The first tenants moved into the North Tower in December 1970; the South Tower opened a year later, in January 1972.

The fact that Muslims have been worshiping four blocks away from Ground Zero for so long makes it hard to argue that it’s a sacrilege to have an Islamic presence so close to the site of the attack by their fanatical coreligionists. (So should the fact that about 60 innocent Muslims died in the trade center on 9/11 — roughly 2 percent of all fatalities.)

Demagogues like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and outgoing Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams — who resigned from TPE in June, well before his rant against “Colored People,” in order to work full time on stopping the Park 51 project (and note that he lives in Sacramento) — have been doing everything they can demonize the center — to “Shirley Sherrod” it, if you will — depicting it as a deliberate affront by all Muslims everywhere to the memory of the victims of the attack. But the backers of the Cordoba Initiative say the mission of the new facility is outreach:

Park 51 is a creation of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, an organization that seeks to improve relations between Islam and the West.

“This is a way for me to give back, as a New Yorker, to my community,” Soho Properties developer and project backer Sharif El-Gamal told The Jerusalem Post. “I’m a New Yorker. This is about giving back to a city that’s given us so much.”

Gamal pointed out that the proposed center would not be “on Ground Zero,” but two city blocks away, and would include a September 11 memorial.

According to the Cordoba House NYC Web site, the 13- story project would include a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores and restaurants.

“There will be a mosque component, which will be a separate not-for-profit component of the project,” Gamal said. “It’s going to be a small component in a community center, just like the 92nd Street Y has a synagogue.”

This Dish reader who lives in the neighborhood sums up how I’d feel if I still lived there:

I first heard about the mosque project a month or two ago, and the thing that struck me the most about it was the overwhelming support it had from the local community board in Lower Manhattan.

I don’t know how familiar you are with how zoning works in New York and the role that community boards play in that process, but let me tell you, to have a community board agree 29-1 on ANY land use issue is quite an accomplishment. Furthermore, why is land use in New York City the business of anyone else but the citizens of New York? If so, I would really like to know Sarah Palin’s opinion of the Atlantic Yards (or Hudson Yards or the expansion of Columbia University) project, an issue that is 1,000,000x more controversial than this project. That’s all this is: a land use issue.

Following her logic (no small feat, I might add), do I now have the right to protest the construction of a new office building in Anchorage because it may house the offices of Big Oil and insult the people who suffered from the BP oil spill? Or can I have a say the next time some city in the “heartland” decides to build more sprawl at the expense of more livable communities with mixed-use development, walkable streets, and public transportation? I think I should, because it really “stabs me in the heart” when places do that.

This is a local issue, plain and simple. The people of New York – the ones actually attacked on 9/11 and who had to live through the aftermath – are the only ones who are affected by this. It is no one else’s business. Sarah Palin and the “heartland” do not have permanent veto power over what gets built in Lower Manhattan. If they want a say over what happens there, my advice would be to move to New York. They might even learn something about the values of living in a multi-ethnic, multicultural community. Short of that, please STFU.

Plan for Ground Zero memorial from 2008 - Park 51 will be two blocks north, well hidden behind the buildings in the top left corner
Plan for Ground Zero memorial from 2008, viewed looking east - Park 51 will be two blocks north (to the left), completely screened by dozens of tall buildings, including the 1,776-foot tall Freedom Tower, the base of which is depicted in the lower left

Another Dish reader was irritated about Newt Gingrich’s recent claim that the Park 51 building “overlooked” the Ground Zero memorial:

Did Newt really claim that the Cordoba House mosque would “overlook” the World Trade Center site? Rubbish. It is three blocks away and has no line of sight.

Yup, Gingrich is lying. Just as you can’t really see Russia from Sarah Palin’s house, the Park 51 building will in no way be visible from the Ground Zero memorial, which will feature a pair of sunken gardens in the footprint of the towers, set well below grade into the trade center site.

And, while we’re exploding right-wing lies myths, Park 51 is not a mosque:

I live two blocks from Ground Zero in a six-building apartment complex with an active tenant association. As best I can tell, Cordoba House is a non-issue among local residents. I haven’t heard a word from anybody on the subject – not in the elevators, not in the lobby, not at the neighborhood bars or restaurants. Nada.

Here are the facts. The proposed Cordoba House is not a mosque. It’s to be a community center modeled after the YMCA and the Jewish Community Center, with most of its 13 floors devoted to classrooms, fitness and recreation – open to the entire downtown community, not just Muslims. There is to be a “prayer space” that can hold up to 2,000 people. I’ll aver that “prayer space” could just be a PC term for “mosque,” though I confess no knowledge of what procedures must take place to consecrate a facility as an official mosque. The group’s leader, Imam Abdul Rauf, has held services in a small mosque in the neighborhood since 1983. It isn’t as though the group materialized out of nowhere or has no history in the neighborhood.

As an infidel, it’s not my usual practice to defend religions of any stripe — much less one whose extremists would behead my gay ass — but the right-wing tea baggery hypocrisy here has to be addressed. One of the few coherent principles of the tea party phenomenon is a demand for a return to adherence to the Constitution. And yet, many of these same people — including their leaders like Gingrich, Palin and Mark Williams –are behaving as if they are oblivious to the fact that there is a fundamental constitutional principle in play here.

The First Amendment was not written just to protect popular, mainstream religions. It was added precisely for situations like this — to protect controversial and even reviled religions from suppression by majoritarian mobs and persecution by the government. The Equal Protection Clause instructs the government to protect the right to religious practice across the board — meaning that the rights of Muslims in New York City’s Financial District must be unabridged just as the rights are protected for bizarre, right-wing pentacostal sects in Wasilla, hate-filled Baptist Churches in Kansas and mainstream churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship everywhere else.


  • DowntownBrown
    July 24, 2010 - 8:31 am | Permalink

    The link for the existing mosque (near the courthouse) is not valid. Can you fix this? I want to share this article.

  • July 24, 2010 - 8:41 am | Permalink

    Done! Thanks.

  • Typhon
    July 26, 2010 - 2:54 am | Permalink

    Think if the mosque is totally screened in, so pro-911 folks from around the world won’t be able to oogle over the grave site, then much of the anger might be aleviated. Also dedicating the mosque on 9/11/11 appears vile to a lot of people. So perhaps a different dedication date might be helpful. But largely buildings should get approved by the people in order to be built. This mosque clearly is not approved by the people. So some compromise is in order. Something that will make everybody happy.

    • July 26, 2010 - 6:26 am | Permalink

      To be clear, Typhon, the building was approved by the local boards that approve buildings in the neighborhood. That is sufficient everywhere else, so it has to be sufficient in New York’s Financial District, too.

  • Aaron
    July 27, 2010 - 10:58 am | Permalink

    Dear Typhon,

    The center known as Park51 won’t open on 9/11/11. In fact it won’t open for a number of years, and certainly not on 9/11. That would be vile. The mosque space is already open and holds prayers for hundreds of people. And since the Community Board represents lower Manhattan, then yeah, it has the support it needs.

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  • A True American
    August 10, 2010 - 10:22 pm | Permalink

    My disgust does not lie in the Muslim faith as a whole…I have several Muslim friends…my disgust lies in the zoning of where the Islamic community center is going to be built…the ideologies of the 9/11 attack were based on individual interpretations of the Islamic faith…The most devastating attack on U.S. soil will have a constant reminder of why those towers came down and why millions of American lives (of all religions) were ruined, conveniently located less than a block away from where it all went down, literally, and it wasn’t just a few “bad apples” that made me think so highly against this, there were nations, organizations and huddled masses cheering in victory when those buildings went down that day, all of them, Islamic followers…that, my dear readers, is what not only disgusts me…it infuriates me!!!

    • August 11, 2010 - 5:32 am | Permalink

      “True” American – If you were a “true” American, you’d support this project because the Constitution gives them the same right to worship as any other religion.

      But mainly, if you were a true conservative, you’d support local control. What business is it of yours how the residents of Manhattan’s Financial District choose to zone their neighborhood.

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  • Sebastian
    August 12, 2010 - 12:52 pm | Permalink

    So let me get this right, you can not build a church near Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building because of the Oklahoma bomber who was Christian?
    Hitler, Mussolini who were both Christians massacred millions, does that mean a Church should not be built near the chambers, prisons and camps?
    What about Wounded Knee Creek? Must be some Churches around there.

    This is ridiculous. There are approximately 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide and only 26 of those committed this terrorist attack (supposedly).

    • August 12, 2010 - 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Sebastian – there’s also a Shinto shrine near Pearl Harbor.

  • Sebastian
    August 13, 2010 - 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for pointing that out. What I find a total joke is Pamela Geller, I heard her say some funny things on interviews, she said “I have nothing against Muslims, i love Muslims” I had to laugh, that’s like saying “I love black people”. She clearly hates Muslims because she also said “If Islam did not exist this attack wouldn’t have happened”
    I say if people like her didn’t exist, American hating terrorists would not have existed either.
    Do people like her realise that they are doing more harm than good by protesting?

  • Kevin
    August 15, 2010 - 7:50 am | Permalink

    I wonder if FOX News and other Murdock media outlets are the primary place where people get this idea that all Muslims are terrorists in hiding.

  • Kevin
    August 15, 2010 - 7:54 am | Permalink

    Sebastian, it’s more than that. They shouldn’t build a YMCA near the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building because they the Young Men’s CHRISTIAN Association puts chapels in ’em all.

  • betty withers
    August 15, 2010 - 1:04 pm | Permalink

    There is also a mosque in the Pentagon, also ground zero on 9/11. I have also been trying to figure out how you handle when a Christian religious terrorist shoots a doctor in a christian church because of his right wing religious views. This gets complicated when you throw out the constituion, which the right wing never hesitates to try to do. Seems they only really like the 2nd amendment.

  • August 16, 2010 - 12:21 am | Permalink

    Hitler, Mussolini who were both Christians massacred millions, does that mean a Church should not be built near the chambers, prisons and camps?

    I see the war against strawmen is going full-tilt here. Tremble before the combined might of the rhetorical swords of Betty, Kevin and Sebastian!!

    If I remember correctly, there was a convent on the grounds of or immediately adjacent to Auschawitz that upset some people. Pope John Paul the 2nd intervened and the convent was moved further away in the 1990s.

    I have also been trying to figure out how you handle when a Christian religious terrorist shoots a doctor in a christian church because of his right wing religious views.

    And I’VE been trying to figure out how one should handle when a convert to Islam guns down two unarmed soldiers outside an Arkansas recruiting station the very next day. Well…if this Administration or it’s faithful, coddling media is any indication, I guess you pretty much ignore it completely. Well played, White House and MSNBC.

    There is also a mosque in the Pentagon

    Is it going to be 13 stories tall? I’m pretty sure that’s called a ‘chapel’, genius. I distinctly remember that there a chapel at Ft. Benning that would do services for the Jewish soldiers on the Friday night Sabbath and then have services held for the Christian soldiers come Sunday morning. It was more or less blank- an altar and not much else….it would’ve been up to the respective chaplains to bring the crosses, menorahs or prayer rugs for the service they were going to conduct…

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  • August 16, 2010 - 9:01 am | Permalink

    Fenway: This entire boondoggle is a straw man, so it’s only fair to bring up all the rest. The mosque in the Pentagon has been holding services since 2001. There has been a Shinto shrine near Pearl Harbor for decades.

  • hector
    August 17, 2010 - 6:00 pm | Permalink

    …so if theres already one or two mosques nearby why build another? why this mosque, why now?

  • Sebastian
    August 18, 2010 - 10:44 am | Permalink

    Hector, there are about 50,000 Muslims in NYC and they all pray 5 times per day everyday.One or two mosques just isnt enough.

  • Betty
    August 19, 2010 - 2:45 pm | Permalink

    It is not mandatory for Muslims to pray at mosques, they may pray anywhere, at the park, the office at home, etc. If they have the need to build another mosque, then do so… but waayyyyy further down the road and not 2 blocks from the WTC.
    This is an insult to people from every “non muslim” religion across the world, and solely creates controversies and outrage. Why create more chaos in the world when it can clearly be avoided.

  • Sebastian
    August 20, 2010 - 12:33 pm | Permalink

    @Betty “Why create more chaos in the world when it can clearly be avoided.”
    It is people who are demonstrating against the mosque that is creating all this “controversy and outrage”.

    The Muslims who want to build this mosque are not the ones creating this chaos, people like you are.

    Pray in the office or park? Have you tried praying in a park when it is raining or snowing outside? What a ridiculous thought.
    If all offices in America had prayer rooms then perhaps they wouldnt need mosques but hey thats another issue that Im sure you would have a problem with too.

  • zol
    August 22, 2010 - 4:58 pm | Permalink

    The main concern of establishing Islamic Cultural Center with Prayer House in it is not the constitutionality of the building, but the lack of decency that some see by the construction of this Center so close to Ground Zero. I haven’t seen or heard that any of the opposers claim that the Constitution should not apply to the Center, instead, they believe that Center should be build at an alternative location.

    Beauty of our country is that people can still become upset over the exercise of the first amendment rights when the exercise of those rights can be seen as offensive to some.

    I also wonder, why the name of the organization behind building the Islamic Cultural Center is Cordoba Initiative?
    (please don’t refer me to their web site).

  • Felix
    August 22, 2010 - 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed reading your blog and the subsequent comments. It’s been helpful for me as I sort through my own emotions about this project and its symbolism.

    In the end, I have to agree that this project should be built and the denunciations should stop. I’ll admit, however, that if the project was built directly adjacent the WTC memorial then I might feel much differently about the motives of the developer.

    Last, I strongly disagree with one of your assertions. You wrote:

    “This is a local issue, plain and simple. The people of New York – the ones actually attacked on 9/11 and who had to live through the aftermath – are the only ones who are affected by this. It is no one else’s business.”

    This is everyone’s business. Those of us outside NYC have no say over shadow casting or material finishes for this project, but what happens at ground zero, site of a national tragedy, is the entire country’s business.

    • August 23, 2010 - 8:55 am | Permalink

      Felix – Thanks for the thoughtful comment. However, I have to tell you that you are missing a key point. As a former resident of the area — I lived three blocks east of the World Trade Center — I have to tell you, sincerely, Park 51 is not “at” Ground Zero. It’s in the middle of a couple of blocks of mostly derelict buildings north of trade center site — and one block west of City Hall Park, which explains the name of the street, Park Place.

      To locals, “Ground Zero” is very specific: It is the space strictly delineated by the footprint of the World Trade Center Plaza, which is a vast space. Park 51 is well away from this area, invisible from this space, and vice versa. That’s what makes this strictly a local issue, and Americans who honor local control should respect this fact.

      But I wonder if you realize that the Ground Zero site is hardly being treated as a sacred spot. There are four giant office towers being built on the graves of the 4,000 people who died there. Yes, there are sunken memorial gardens being built in the square footprints of the twin towers, but rest of the plaza area — Ground Zero — has been given over to the construction of huge monuments to corporatism and commercialism.

      Finally, as noted, there is a mosque 600 yards away from the World Trade Center site, so it makes no sense to argue against building a Muslim-oriented neighborhood community center 400 yards from the site.

      You would have trouble convincing residents of New York’s Financial District that Park 51 is “everyone’s business.” There are very few amenities for residents in the area, which tends to close up for business after 5 p.m. every day — it’s a ghost town on the weekends. You’d have even more trouble convincing the developers of the towers going up in the old WTC Plaza that it is anyone’s business but their own what they are building on the Ground Zero site.

  • zol
    August 23, 2010 - 10:49 pm | Permalink

    > That’s what makes this strictly a local issue, and Americans who honor local control should respect this fact.

    It doesn’t meant that Americans can not express their opinion.

    > Finally, as noted, there is a mosque 600 yards away from the World Trade Center site, so it makes no sense to argue against building a Muslim-oriented neighborhood community center 400 yards from the site.

    Exactly, and nobody making any fuss about it, because it was established here 40 years ago and has nothing to do with latest events.

    > You would have trouble convincing residents of New York’s Financial District that Park 51 is “everyone’s business.” There are very few amenities for residents in the area, which tends to close up for business after 5 p.m. every day — it’s a ghost town on the weekends. You’d have even more trouble convincing the developers of the towers going up in the old WTC Plaza that it is anyone’s business but their own what they are building on the Ground Zero site.

    Sorry, but may I ask you, when was the last time you visited Financial District? I agree, 13+ years ago, it looked exactly the way you described it, but not now, a lot of office buildings were converted to a rental apartment buildings, some have residential units and commercial space. Yes, it’s not a Times Square, but not a ghost town either, especially on the weekends.

    BTW, you forgot to mention that the landing gear assembly of one of the planes used in the attack crashed through the roof of what was then a Burlington Coat Factory, which caused its closure.

  • Kevin
    August 26, 2010 - 2:46 pm | Permalink

    They can approve a mosque, but they won’t approve a Christian church that was knocked down during the terror strike.

    • August 27, 2010 - 5:28 am | Permalink

      photo-st-nicholas-church-wtcKevin, stop lying. There are Christian churches there that are just fine, including St. Pauls, where Pres. George Washington went to church when the U.S. government was in New York, which is one block east of the WTC plaza, at Broadway.

      What you’re talking about is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was damaged when the WTC towers fell. The owners of the church have been in negotiations with the owners of the WTC/Ground Zero site — the state governments of New York and New Jersey through the Port Authority — to relocate the church. The “approval” you mentioned will come from the Port Authority, because, unlike Park 51, the Greek Church is actually “at” Ground Zero, meaning across the street from WTC site.

      Park 51 does not need approval from the Ground Zero’s owners, the Port Authority, because Park 51 is not anywhere remotely near the Port Authority’s jurisdiction. Park 51, which is a block west of New York City Hall, was approved by the zoning board for the Financial District, 28 to one.

      Here’s more on St. Nicholas for anyone who, unlike Kevin, is in interested in the truth:

      Negotiations with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for a land swap and public funding reached an impasse more than a year ago. The stalemate is only now generating public attention due to heated protests over Park51, a proposed Islamic community center several blocks away that’s been dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” by critics.

      “St. Nicholas has nothing to do with this mosque controversy. We believe in religious freedom, and whether the mosque should or shouldn’t be there, that’s a whole different dialogue,” said the Rev. Mark Arey, archdiocese spokesman. “But it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats. People say the mosque has been greenlighted, but why not this church?”

      The entire Ground Zero rebuilding process has taken years longer than expected, due to the arduous rescue, recovery and rubble-removal efforts, followed by the bureaucratic process of establishing property ownership and designing the memorial and buildings.

      By late 2008, St. Nicholas and the Port Authority had reached a tentative agreement for the church to give up its 1,200-square-foot site at 155 Cedar Street in exchange for 130 Liberty Street, a bigger site half a block away.

      Six months later, the Port Authority said negotiations ended because St. Nicholas demanded too much money and approval power over a vehicle security center beneath the sites. Port Authority spokesman Stephen Sigmund said the church can return to its original location.

      “In 2009, we made our final offer, which again included up to $60 million in public money, and told St. Nicholas Orthodox Church that the World Trade Center could not be delayed over this issue,” he said in a written statement. “They rejected that offer.”

      Arey said negotiations were in the final stages, with the church “acting in good faith,” when the Port Authority suddenly stopped returning calls. He and other church officials think the agency changed course because the fate of the old Deutsch Bank building next to the new site — which is supposed to become Tower 5 of the rebuilt World Trade Center — became unclear after JP Morgan Chase took over Bear Stearns’ midtown offices and no longer needed a new building downtown.

      “Maybe they wanted to figure out what else to do with that property,” Couloucoundis said. “The official account is that the church was too demanding. That’s completely ridiculous. We weren’t suddenly asking for $100 million or to build a church 30 stories high.”

      The Deutsch Bank building is still partly standing at Liberty Street; a 2007 blaze that killed two firefighters there stalled the demolition, and the Port Authority has not released new plans for what will replace it.

      The church is holding firm to the Liberty Street swap plan, and says its old site is unacceptable — it’s too close to the proposed vehicle security center’s garage doors, and St. Nicholas needs more space for the visitors to the 9/11 memorial and thousands of new residents in the neighborhood.

      The new 130 Liberty Street site could accommodate a church six times bigger than the old one, which was open only twice a week and didn’t offer any children’s programs.

      A three- or four-story building that meets the city’s Ground Zero security requirements will cost at least $30 million, Couloucoundis said. The church has raised about $4 million so far, with donations coming in from around the world. Concerns about sloppy book-keeping has prompted the archdiocese to step in to help oversee the funds, he added, and a forensic accountant will be hired to go over the bookkeeping.

      “In the end, it’s not about the money,” Arey said. “There are people all over the world who want to see this church rebuilt. This church will be rebuilt.”

      I added a photo of St. Nicholas from before the 9/11 attacks that shows its proximity (literally across the street) from the towers.

  • September 7, 2010 - 11:52 am | Permalink

    I have to snicker when I hear “small government republicans” wail out for city intervention against the mosque. It appears that they only support small government when it suits them personally. However, when it fits their desires, a powerful government is OK.

  • September 14, 2010 - 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Not quite sure how, but a snippet of my blog post on the subject appeared in your comments.

    In any event, I completely agree with the whole article, which is very good. Unfortunately, demagoguery is big business in this country, at this time. The Right wing sees a big brass ring at the end of their hatred tunnel, and it will be promulgated regardless of common sense. It would take the combined voices of an informed and engaged public to shut down the garbage from Palin, Newt, et al. I don’t see that happening any time soon. Really, really sad.

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