Park51 Community Center Opens Its Doors

By Julie Shapiro on September 22, 2011 10:09am 

Four men including Rana Sodhi, second from right, who inspired the NYChildren photography exhibit, conversed at Park51's grand opening Sept. 21, 2011.
Four men including Rana Sodhi, second from right, who inspired the NYChildren photography exhibit, conversed at Park51's grand opening Sept. 21, 2011.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

LOWER MANHATTAN — With no protesters and little hint of the controversy that consumed lower Manhattan last summer, the Park51 Islamic community center officially opened its doors to the public Wednesday night.

Photographs of children from around the world lined the walls, and the New York Arabic Orchestra filled the 4,500-square-foot space with music, while Downtown residents, workers and community leaders mingled and nibbled hors d'oeuvres.

"It's time to start demystifying what we're trying to do," said a beaming Sharif El-Gamal, founder of Park51, after he cut a red ribbon to formally open the new center two blocks north of the World Trade Center.

"There was so much opposition. But this is what we're about. We want to serve every person or child in New York."

To launch the center, El-Gamal chose an exhibit of Danny Goldfield's NYChildren project, a collection of photographs of children from 169 countries around the world, all living in New York City.

Goldfield attended the opening Wednesday night, along with Rana Sodhi, a Sikh whose brother was murdered in a hate crime four days after 9/11, and whose efforts to fight prejudice in the wake of the crime inspired Goldfield's project.

Sodhi, who spoke haltingly, but emotionally, said it was appropriate for Park51 to open so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks, replacing the hatred of that day with a message of tolerance.

"We are together here today at Park51 to show the world we are still united and we respect each other," Sodhi said.

In addition to Goldfield's exhibit, which runs through mid-December, Park51 will also host interfaith discussions, film screenings, author readings and children's yoga classes in the temporary ground-floor space, which will eventually be demolished to make way for the much larger community center El-Gamal originally envisioned.

Many of those who attended Wednesday's opening celebration said they were glad to see Park51 become a reality.

"Given all the hype there was about it, it's such a way to bring back a sense of community," said Jennifer Willard, 38, an occupational therapist who works in lower Manhattan.

"These kids are our future, and they can make a difference. Let's teach them tolerance."

Janel Tongay, 60, a New Jersey resident, said she was initially concerned about Park51's lack of outreach to 9/11 family members, some of whom opposed the project.

But she, too, felt that it was important for the center's leaders to open the space and demonstrate their intentions.

"Everyone has the right to follow their own religious beliefs in a peaceful way," she said.

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