East side residents say their opposition to the Muslim Community Center that has been proposed for 24th Street is still strong. Supporters say they are just as strong in support of the Bayonne Muslim Community.
The group is seeking approval to make changes to an old warehouse at 109 East 24th St. so that it would have a place where its members can go to learn, pray, and recreate. Area residents are opposed to it, citing concerns about parking, traffic, noise, and privacy.
East side residents said they have nothing against the Muslim religion and its practitioners. They say they are concerned about the quality of life issues of their neighborhood that would be threatened.
Joe Wisniewski of East 23rd Street said he would be against the project whether it was for a Muslim Community Center or anything else.
“Whether this was a movie theater or a large supermarket I would have the same issue,” Wisniewski said. “This is a dense area and not set up for any high-volume traffic that would ruin our peaceful, tranquil neighborhood. I wouldn’t have an issue with a mosque if it was zoned in a commercial area that wouldn’t ruin an entire neighborhood.”
Mary Curtis of East 26th Street questioned what an ambulance’s response time would be if the center is approved and there is increased traffic in the area.
“A few minutes can be the difference between life or death,” Curtis said.
“It has nothing to do with color; it’s all about culture,” said Michael Alonso of Bayonne, who does not live near the 24th Street site. “The proposed center doesn’t fit into the area that it will be in.”
Jack Butchko issued a press release that the group of Bayonne citizens against the Muslim Community Center were not “racists,” since Islam is not a race. Among his concerns are that parking, traffic, and congestion studies were not performed.
A couple of residents said they believed there were latent reasons for the opposition.
“It may be traffic and parking they’re talking about, but I feel like a lot of other concerns may be masked,” said Riham Elshazli of Kennedy Boulevard, a Bayonne Muslim Community member.
“I feel it’s not fair for them, that they can’t practice their religious views because of the stereotypes,” said Amanda Martiak, 17, a Bayonne High School student.
But other city residents feel that outright bigotry is the reason for the opposition.
“I think it’s a lot of bigotry coming from people opposing the community center,” said Dan Ward, an educator at Bayonne High School.
“I think it’s bigotry. I think that what they are doing is very harmful to Bayonne as a community, because the people who will be using that community center are our future,” said Donna Farina of Bayonne, a university professor. Farina said she hoped that the Zoning Board would consider the group’s application like all others, and give its members the opportunity to remedy any problems there might be with it.
Shawn Jaryno, a resident of East 24th Street, said he was not against the proposal.
“At this time I have no objection to this facility as it is the constitutional right of the Bayonne Muslim group to enjoy the private use of the property they own without interference for the purpose of peaceful religious gatherings,” Jaryno said.
The Muslim group had been renting the St. Henry School on Avenue C for several years, but have outgrown the facility, representatives said.
Waheed Akbar, secretary of the Bayonne Muslim Community, said there were no complaints with the group when it worshipped at St. Henry’s and that he anticipated none at the new site if it is approved.
Special hearing on center
The two sides came face to face before and during a special Bayonne Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting about the application on Jan. 19 in the City Council chambers. At the hearing, the board heard three and a half hours of testimony about the proposed center. Board Chairman Mark Urban stopped the meeting a little after 9:30 p.m. when it became evident the meeting would go past its 10 p.m. cutoff point.
The board will be hearing the application on Monday, March 14 at 6 p.m. The last two witnesses for the center will testify, and the board may make a decision on the application at that meeting’s end.
Expectations are still high
Those behind the Muslim Community Center said they were not discouraged by the termination of the meeting and the hearing’s expected completion in March.
“All I can say is that the community center for Muslims will open in Bayonne,” said a supporter, who did not give his name.
“I don’t see what would be the matter with it,” said another supporter. “Everyone has community centers.”
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.