He made it to Stuyvesant High School in Battery Park City, already a temporary aid center. He worked around-the-clock, giving food and water to firefighters. "I was so fucking angry about what they had done to my city," he said. After two days, his eyes swelled up from the metallic-laced smoke pouring from the ruins. "I couldn't see," he said. "I had to go to the hospital."

Later, he began spending time downtown. He prayed at a local mosque in a commercial building on Warren Street. "I became a lot more aware of my identity," he said. "And I started seeing that who we were being portrayed as was not who we are." Talking with friends, he got the idea for a center that would offer a Muslim prayer space, as well as cultural and recreational facilities for the growing number of downtown residents, a place where any New Yorker could attend a lecture or swim a lap in a pool. His model, he said, was the Jewish Community Center on Amsterdam Avenue, where he was a member. "I was looking to establish a space where Muslims could contribute to Manhattan," he said.

He considered numerous sites, all within a rough six-block radius of the Warren Street mosque. A deal for a property on Broadway, across from City Hall, fell through, as did another on Chambers Street. "It was a long hunt," said El-Gamal. "Real estate is never easy." Last summer, he signed a contract to buy the old Burlington Coat Factory building on Park Place, where he plans to erect his 13-story cultural center.

On Tuesday, the project passed its last hurdle as the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled that the 19th-century structure lacks the historical star quality needed for landmark status. A couple of hours later, the mayor went to Governors Island to talk about the site's real historic significance for the city, a history Bloomberg helped make as he spoke.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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