News & Opinion

New York Notebook

The mosque will easily fit New York’s state of mind

The Times

August 10, 2010


The first time I visited Ground Zero, as a tourist eight years ago, was on a bitingly cold winter evening. The crater still felt, despite the portable huts, workmen and machinery, most definitely like a crater. Its size was incomprehensible. If my mission was to rubberneck ghoulishly on an epic tragedy, the dramatic vista delivered.

It was obvious who was from out of town — we were trying to find messages and photographs pinned to fences, read the names on a 9/11 memorial; we were dumbfounded. Real New Yorkers walked determinedly on; they were finding a way to live with this aberration by trying somehow to make it just another part of the visual commute.

Sarah Palin — as angry New Yorkers point out — is not from New York, but three weeks ago she called on “peace-seeking Muslims” to “refudiate” plans to build a mosque and community centre two blocks from Ground Zero. This seemed less a linguistically botched appeal to peace-seeking Muslims than to a Republican body politic so suspicious of Muslims that it rarely bothers to differentiate “peaceful” ones from potential terrorists.

Last week, Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, spoke in support of the mosque, as reprinted in Saturday’s Times: “Lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question — should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? . . . This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favour one over another.”

This being New York, the proudest of melting pots, you would expect the sentiment behind Mrs Palin’s words to be as scorned as her mangled words. Not so. One survey shows a pretty even split for and against the mosque. Letters to the Daily News are absolutely opposed, calling the mosque an insult to New Yorkers and 9/11 families.

But in midtown New York, in an admittedly unscientific survey, I found unanimous support for Mayor Bloomberg. “The right wing is disgraceful in pandering to fear and xenophobia,” one man said. One web editor, not from New York, said that Ground Zero felt like “hallowed ground”, although “singling out Muslims and driving them from active participation in American life is a sure way to reinforce the jihadist view that America is at war with their religion”.

Ground Zero is now a jungle of cranes, the crater-feel has gone: eventually the 1,776ft Freedom Tower will stand there, with two memorial pools where the bases of the two towers were. A friend described daily life at the site: “You’ve got tourists taking pictures in the same way they do in front of the Statue of Liberty. There is little reverence or respect.”

I asked my landlord if he thought the site should be kept special in some way. “It needs to be built on, and big,” he said. “Get back to normality. Look at this tiny island: the skyscrapers, how tightly they’re packed. New York is about real estate, money.”

Many New Yorkers want to see Ground Zero reborn, respectfully, with the swagger of the surrounding city — the same swagger that will ultimately accept the presence of a mosque two blocks away.


Housewives, choice

In a desperate bid to find something incontrovertibly easy to, y’know, hate, one must turn to reality TV. The antics of the over-tanned Snooki from the MTV programme Jersey Shore have briefly receded. After the catfights of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta/New Jersey/New York comes the Washington DC chapter. The cast includes Michaele Salahi who, with her husband Tareq, allegedly crashed President Obama’s first state dinner. She has already been rejected by the other women and has accused Whoopi Goldberg of hitting her during taping of the chat show The View. (Videotape showed Goldberg touching her gently on the arm.)

The British “housewife” Catherine Ommanney isn’t popular either, after criticising Barack Obama and doing an impersonation of a black model in a kitchen full of black women. She ignored their mortified looks and asked the chef what was for lunch.


Down in the dumps

To cool down in this baking summer, New Yorkers are being encouraged to take a dip in converted “dumpster” pools. Three mini swimming pools — yes, they’re cleaned-out, tarted-up, massive skips — have appeared on Park Avenue, which is closed to traffic on selected Saturdays in August.

Some New Yorkers are horrified, wondering how clean the dumpsters are and why on earth you’d strip off to be observed by gawping strangers for a scaled-down swim. Others use Bill Murray’s dumpster diving on David Letterman’s chatshow recently as a cautionary example: his tomfoolery yielded a nasty gash on his forehead.

But the Park Avenue swimmers are enchanted. “I have another suggestion for Mayor Bloomberg,” one said. “Hot tubs in the winter.”