Mike Bloomberg did a brave and good deed for this city last week, one for which he’s due a round of applause, especially from those of us who mainly throw bricks his way.
He picked a fight where all his billions are of no help, and where a politician who still harbors White House dreams can do himself no obvious good. On the morning of August 3, a Tuesday, he summoned the press and took the little white ferry across the channel from Battery Park to Governors Island so that he could use the city’s greatest visual prop as his sole protective cover.
With the bay’s rippling water and the Statue of Liberty behind him, he gave us a 15-minute refresher course in a crucial piece of local history that gets talked about only in classrooms and walking tours. He had come to the tiny island, the first home of New Amsterdam’s European settlers, he said, to remind us that this was where “the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted.”
We don’t always get along in the immigrant city they started, he said, but mutual respect and tolerance are the key ingredients that make New York work: “It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11,” he said. “Of all our precious freedoms,” he continued, “the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish.”
That freedom, Bloomberg added, “was hard-won over many years.” He cited Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant’s rejection of a petition by the city’s first Jews to build a synagogue, and his prohibition against Quaker meetings of worship. He invoked one of the city’s proudest documents, one mentioned so rarely that even he had trouble pronouncing it. That was the “Flushing Remonstrance,” a declaration in 1657 by local neighbors of the Quakers in which they refused to enforce Stuyvesant’s ban. “Wee are bounde by the law to do good unto all men,” they wrote, “especially to those of the household of faith.”
The same principle, the mayor said, commanded him to support the right of Muslims to create a mosque on property they’ve purchased on Park Place, even though it is a short two blocks from the World Trade Center site where fanatics killed almost 3,000 of us, invoking Allah’s name as they did so.
“We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands,” he said, “if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists—and we should not stand for that.”
The mayor has been making remarks along these lines since May, when the storm around the mosque started kicking up dust. “The first time it was raised, I’m not even sure we’d anticipated the question,” said Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s political deputy. “His reaction was just from the gut. He was very unequivocal in his views on it.”
The questions kept coming. “He’s been asked about it several times a week, every week, for two and a half months,” said Stu Loeser, the mayor’s press secretary. Last month, Bloomberg asked Wolfson, Loeser, and City Hall aide Frank Barry to come up with a speech and a place to give it. “He had points he wanted to make that he thought were being lost in the debate,” said Loeser.
Part of the goal was to place the dispute in the context of the city’s history. “He said he thinks this is as big an issue of religious freedom as we are likely to confront in our time,” said Wolfson.
Bloomberg tinkered with the words right up until he spoke. “He looked at the speech again Tuesday morning,” said Loeser. “He said, ‘I think there is something missing.’ ” The mayor then added the lines about the rescuers who rushed into the burning towers on 9/11: “Not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to? What beliefs do you hold?’ We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting.” “That was his last add,” said Loeser. “Then he said, ‘All right, let’s go.’ “
At the event, Bloomberg’s plea for tolerance was echoed by Council Speaker Christine Quinn and a clutch of religious leaders. Normally, such appeals are no big political lift. This one was different. On Thursday morning, a Siena College poll was released showing that statewide, New Yorkers oppose the mosque by more than a two-to-one ratio. Even in Bloomberg’s own city, the poll found opponents in overwhelming majority, 56 percent to 33 percent.
The Republican candidates for governor are so delighted that they have made the mosque their entire campaigns. Rick Lazio’s website opens with a black-and-white banner asking viewers to “Defend New York” by demanding that attorney general and Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo—a consistent, if quieter, project supporter—investigate the mosque’s finances. Carl Paladino, the upstate millionaire and Tea Party favorite, unveiled a new TV ad last week calling the mosque “a monument to those who attacked our country.”
Actually, on the morning of September 11, the man accused of wanting to build a shrine to terrorism, a 37-year-old real estate developer from Brooklyn, was racing toward the scene of the attack. Sharif El-Gamal was having breakfast at a diner on the Upper East Side when he looked up from his eggs to see the second plane strike the towers on TV. “I thought I was watching a movie,” he said. He began running downtown. “I ran through crowds of people running in the opposite direction. I wanted to see what happened to my city. I wanted to help.”
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.