Opponents of a proposed mosque in Sheepshead Bay came before the Sheepshead Bay/Plumb Beach Civic Association last week to rally support for their fight, but instead found little sympathy for their struggle.
A handful of neighbors came to the Tuesday night meeting to present their case against the mosque, which may soon be built at 2812 Voorhies Avenue and will also include a school and community center. But board members of the civic association and Community Board 15 chairperson Theresa Scavo bristled as the opposition turned towards race-baiting and ethnic fears.
“On what grounds are you opposing them?” said Scavo. “You can’t turn around and say ‘Oh they’re Muslim.’ Who’s going to look like the bad guy?”
Though initial statements from the mosque’s opponents emphasized potential traffic, parking, and noise problems as the cause for their concern, racist undertones began to bubble to the surface of the debate.
“The various people that will be drawn to this location will not be acceptable,” said Joan Bonfonte, a real estate agent who lives nearby. “When you’re going against people who are looking to blow us apart, I don’t like it.”
Victor Benari, another neighbor, said he’s afraid for his children, and doesn’t want them walking past the mosque to go to P.S. 52 less than a block away.
“My son comes to me and says he is afraid of them,” Benari said. “I’m afraid of them too, because they look like this,” he said while pantomiming a burka’s veil.
City planners rejected an August proposal from the mosque’s organizers that asked for a zoning variance. The proposal included a four-story center with a roof extension for a minaret, a tall spire used for calls to prayer.
Their proposal was rejected by the Department of Buildings.
Still, the mosque is expected to go forward with construction within the existing zoning regulations. According to DOB’s community affairs liaison Ken Lazar, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, community facilities like religious institutions may build “as of right” in residential neighborhoods so long as they fit in with zoning.
Benari and other opponents said more locals should be concerned, as the mosque presents a challenge to real estate prices and the character of the community.
“Your real estate will go down. You won’t be able to sell your houses. They will go for peanuts,” said Benari.
He also said that it would draw larger numbers of Muslims to settle in Sheepshead Bay, changing its demographics.
Members of the civic association – almost all of which have family spanning generations in Sheepshead Bay – balked at the notion of an Eastern European immigrant appealing to them on the changing character of Sheepshead Bay.
“I liked this neighborhood when I could leave my house barefoot and walk on the beach,” said SB/PB Secretary Barbara Berardelli. “When [Eastern Europeans] moved here, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t like you. But ultimately it’s not about your preference, it’s about being a good neighbor and realizing they have rights too.”
Scavo added that the group might have a chance if they fought their battle on the concrete issues of parking and traffic. She pointed out that Voorhies Avenue is a congested street with one lane in each direction.
“If you want to succeed, do not use the word mosque. Do not use the word Muslim,” said Scavo. “Request the traffic reports. Go take photos of the double parking at the other mosques during calls to prayer. Have they done that? No. Because they’re lazy. You can’t just go with your mouth. You need paper.”
Ultimately, neither Scavo nor the civic association were convinced the group had a leg to stand on.
Berardelli suggested they sit down with the mosque’s officials to settle issues “because you have to live together.”
She was interrupted by a dissenter, who shouted, “But can they live with us?”
A visibly flustered Berardelli shook her head and responded, “You’re not going to stop this.”
Gene Berardelli, SBPB’s council, advised the group to consider a stern, but compromising approach.
“It’s about how you engage them,” he said. Opponents should stay vigilant for DOB violations and quality of life issues to make sure the mosque doesn’t disturb the existing atmosphere. “You have to hold their feet to the fire. But ultimately you need to be a neighbor, because they’re coming to the neighborhood,” he said.
After the meeting, the group against the mosque was not optimistic about receiving more support than the nearly 300 signatures they collected from residents during a petition drive. Local politicians have made clear that the facility has a right to build, and the civics and community boards are reluctant to be pulled into a racially-heated debate.
Benari, though, said he’s considering legal challenges to bar construction. But he adds that though they have two lawyers working on it, they have yet to find the grounds for a suit.
One thing is for sure, though. Benari has no plans to take the civic’s advice to compromise with mosque officials if the facility is built.
“Will we engage them? No. I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I will do. I will move from this neighborhood.”