On that still quiet Tuesday morning the sales staff was in
a basement room eating breakfast, waiting to open the doors to the first
shoppers at 10 a.m.
There was no immediate sign of the fiery cataclysm that
erupted overhead starting at 8:46. But out of a baby-blue sky suddenly
stained with smoke, a planeís landing gear assembly the size of a World
War II torpedo crashed through the roof and down through two empty selling
floors of the Burlington Coat Factory.
The September 11, 2001 attack killed 2,752 people downtown
and doomed the five-storey building at 45 Park Place, two blocks north of
the World Trade Centre, keeping it abandoned for eight years.
But for months now, out of the public eye, an iron gate
rises every Friday afternoon and, with the outside rumblings of
construction at Ground Zero as a backdrop, hundreds of Muslims crowd
inside, facing Mecca in prayer and listening to their imam read in Arabic
from the Koran.
The building has no sign that hints at its use as a Muslim
prayer space but these modest beginnings point to a far grander vision: an
Islamic centre near the cityís most hallowed piece of land that would
stand as one of Ground Zeroís more unexpected and striking neighbours.
The location was precisely a key selling point for the
group of Muslims who bought the building in July. A presence so close to
the World Trade Centre, "where a piece of the wreckage fell," said Imam
Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, "sends the opposite
statement to what happened on 9/11."
"We want to push back against the extremists," added Imam
Although organisers have sought to avoid publicising their
project because they say plans are too preliminary, it has drawn early
encouragement from city officials and the surrounding neighbourhood.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said through a spokesman that
Imam Feisal told him of the project last September at a celebration to
observe the end of Ramadan. As for whether Mr Bloomberg supported it, the
spokesman, Andrew Brent, said, "If itís legal, the building owners have a
right to do what they want."
The mayorís director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs,
Fatima Shama, went further. "We as New York Muslims have as much of a
commitment to rebuilding New York as anybody," Ms Shama said. Imam
Feisalís wife, Daisy Khan, serves on an advisory team for the National
September 11 Memorial and Museum and Lynn Rasic, a spokeswoman for the
memorial, said, "The idea of a cultural centre that strengthens ties
between Muslims and people of all faiths and backgrounds is positive."
Those who have worked with him say that if anyone could
pull off what many regard to be a delicate project, it would be Imam
Feisal, whom they described as having built a career preaching tolerance
and interfaith understanding.
"He subscribes to my credo: ĎLive and let liveí," said
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue on East
As a Sufi, Imam Feisal follows a path of Islam focused
more on spiritual wisdom than on strict ritual and as a bridge builder, he
is sometimes focused more on cultivating relations with those outside his
faith than within it.
But though the imam is adamant about what his intentions
for the site are, there is anxiety among those involved or familiar with
the project that it could very well become a target for anti-Muslim
Joan Brown Campbell, director of the department of
religion at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York and former
general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA, who
is a supporter of Imam Feisal, acknowledged the possibility of a backlash
from those opposed to a Muslim presence at Ground Zero.
But, she added: "Building so close is owning the tragedy.
Itís a way of saying: ĎThis is something done by people who call
themselves Muslims. We want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible
The FBI said Imam Feisal had helped agents reach out to
the Muslim population after September 11. "Weíve had positive interactions
with him in the past," said an agency spokesman, Richard Kolk. Alice
Hoagland of Las Gatos, California, whose son, Mark Bingham, was killed in
the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, said, "Itís quite a bold
step buying a piece of land adjacent to Ground Zero" but she said she
considered plans for the site "a noble effort".
On a recent Friday, worshippers in the old Burlington Coat
Factory heard Imam Feisalís call for spiritual purity during the time of
the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
"We like Imam Feisal, the way he presents the philosophy
of the true Islam that I call it," said one of the congregants, Mohammed
Abdullah, an investment banker who travelled from Washington for the
The location is not designated a mosque but rather an
overflow prayer space for another mosque, Al-Farah at 245 West Broadway in
TriBeCa, where Imam Feisal is the spiritual leader.
Built in 1923, the building at 45 Park Place was bought by
Sy Syms, the discount retailer, and a partner, Irving Pomerantz, in 1968
and became one of the early Syms stores. The store closed in 1990, the
partners parted ways and the Pomerantz family then leased the building to
the Burlington Coat Factory.
On September 11, the store, with 80 employees, was one of
250 Burlington outlets nationwide owned by the Milstein family. That
morning, recalled Stephen Milstein, the companyís former general manager
and vice-president, the staff was in the basement when a piece of a plane
plunged through the roof, either from American Airlines Flight 11 crashing
into the north tower at 8:46 a.m. or United Airlines Flight 175 crashing
into the south tower at 9:03.
Kukiko Mitani, whose husband, Stephen Pomerantz, owned the
building at the time, tried to sell it for years, at one time asking $18
million. But when the recession hit, she sold it in July to a real estate
investment firm, Soho Properties, for $4.85 million in cash, records show.
One of the investors was the Cordoba Initiative, an interfaith group
founded by Imam Feisal.
"Itís really to provide a place of peace, a place of
services and solutions for the community which is always looking for
interfaith dialogue," said Sharif El-Gamal, chairman and chief executive
of Soho Properties.
The patched-up roof was easily visible on a recent tour of
the building, along with evidence of its sudden evacuation: food bags
still in a fifth-floor staff refrigerator and, most eerily, a log sheet
for the testing of the emergency alarm system that shows a sign-in
signature for 9/11 but no sign-out.
Records kept by the cityís Department of Buildings show
anonymous complaints for illegal construction and blocked exits at the
site. Inspectors tried to check but were unable to gain access so the
complaints, though still open, were listed as "resolved" under city
procedures, according to an agency spokeswoman, Carly Sullivan.
But worshippers are legally occupying the building, where
retail space is offered for lease, once a week under temporary permits of
assembly through December, Ms Sullivan said.
With 50,000 square feet of air rights, Imam Feisal said,
the location, with enough financing, could support an ambitious project of
$150 million, akin to the Chautauqua Institution, the 92nd Street Y or the
Jewish Community Centre.
Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community
Centre, said the group would be proud to be a model for Imam Feisal at
Ground Zero. "For the JCC to have partners in the Muslim community that
share our vision of pluralism and tolerance would be great," she said.
Mr El-Gamal agreed. "What happened that day," he said,
"was not Islam."