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Park51 Community Center Launches with Photography Exhibit

By Julie Shapiro | September 19, 2011 3:07pm

LOWER MANHATTAN — The much-debated Park51 community center is officially opening its doors this week.

The interfaith center at 51 Park Place —­ which is now separate from the adjacent mosque that generated controversy last summer for its proximity to the World Trade Center site — will offer a range of classes, arts programs and discussions starting Wednesday.  

"We're really excited to have a new space we can use for welcoming our neighbors," said Katerina Lucas, Park51's chief of staff.

Park51 describes itself as "inspired by Islamic values and Muslim heritage" but is designed to be inclusive and welcoming to all faiths and backgrounds, Lucas said.

The center is now formally separate from the Muslim congregation — recently dubbed "PrayerSpace" — which has been meeting next-door at 45 Park Place for nearly two years, Lucas said.

After the plans for the mosque and community center sparked frequent protests and threats of violence in the summer of 2010, the NYPD has kept a close watch on the 45-51 Park Place buildings.

Lucas said she has been in touch with the 1st Precinct about security now that Park51 is opening its doors, but she is not worried.

"We do have the question on our radar," Lucas said of security. "[But] it is not a deep concern."

Lucas said Park51's founders still hoped to build the much larger multi-million-dollar center that was originally envisioned, including a pool, a gym and a theater.

But while fundraising and planning continue, Lucas is glad to begin giving neighbors a taste of the future programming in a renovated 4,500-square-foot space on 51 Park Place's ground floor.

"The need is there now," Lucas said. "We can provide lower Manhattan with a space that can be used in various ways, [including] language classes, movie screenings and book presentations."

Park51's first major event is an exhibit of Danny Goldfield's NYChildren project, which aims to photograph a child from every country in the world living in New York City.

So far, Goldfield, 44, a Brooklyn resident, has photographed local children from 169 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. All 169 photos will be on display at Park51 through mid-December.

"What the community center is trying to do is very much in line with what my project is about," Goldfield said in a phone interview Monday.

"They're both about trying to bring different people together, different communities together."

Goldfield started his photography project in 2003 after meeting Rana Sodhi, a Sikh whose brother was murdered in a hate crime four days after 9/11. During their chance meeting at an Arizona gas station, Goldfield was inspired by Sodhi's description of his efforts to reach out to his neighbors, taking proactive steps toward eliminating people's prejudices and fears.

Sodhi and Goldfield will meet again for the first time in eight years at Park51's opening this Wednesday.

Other upcoming programs at Park51 this fall include children's yoga classes and all-ages capoeira classes, along with monthly interfaith discussions and more yet-to-be-announced cultural events, Lucas said.

Park51's opening celebration will be held Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at 51 Park Place. Those who want to attend should RSVP on Park51's website. Starting Sept. 22, Park51 will be open Monday to Friday from 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.