On the corner of Suffolk Street and Minnesota Avenue in the city’s University District stands one of the biggest houses on its side of the block.
The vacant, three-story building looks like it was a multi-family dwelling at one time.
But a plan to open a Muslim community center by the end of the year will breathe new life into the boarded-up building — as cautiously supportive neighbors keep watch to make sure the facility doesn't turn into anything else.
The owner, Mohammad H. Rahman, says he will renovate 497 Minnesota to provide a community building for the whole neighborhood, not just for Muslims.
“We want to live peacefully, and we want to have better interactions with everybody, and we want to make a difference in the area that we live,” Rahman said during a recent meet-and-greet at Cleveland Hill United Methodist Church. The goal of the public meeting was to give residents an opportunity to provide feedback on the plan.
Rahman's plan comes as some Muslim facilities elsewhere in the country have come under attack in recent years. Neighbors who have lived in the community for decades were somewhat apprehensive during the meet-and-greet, but generally supportive of the plan. Still, they are taking a wait-and-see-approach.
“I don’t want this to turn into something else after you’ve gotten all situated in there,” said Dianna Goodwin.
“I’m going to be looking,” Goodwin added. “If it turns into something else, I’m going to start protesting. I want positiveness in the community because I’ve been here 32 years plus, and I don’t want you bringing something in here that don’t jibe with what’s already here … and changing things around.”
Elsie Drumb was a little uncertain about the project and took it upon herself to go check out the building. By the end of the meeting, she felt more assured about the project.
“I walk in the neighborhood to find out what’s going on, and I call the councilman’s office,” she said.
“It sounds good,” Drumb said of the plans for the Muslim center. “I’ll wait and see.”
The center will be a place for social gatherings and for offering prayers five times a day — a religious duty for every Muslim. Organizers plan to provide homework help for all youngsters and a number of activities eventually will be available, including food drives, clothing drives and giveaways of back-to-school supplies.
“Above all, the center will serve as a place for social gathering, community interactions and will strive to foster positive social development for everyone who participates,” Rahman said.
Because the center would be located in a residential area, it would require special permits and rezoning, said University Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt.
To keep a handle on operations at the center, the Common Council would issue a temporary permit valid for only one year with conditions. That way officials and residents can revisit the matter, Wyatt said.
“So the community can make sure it’s to their satisfaction, and there’s no issue. We will come back in one year. The community will speak, and if there’s an issue, then we can shut it down,” said Wyatt.
Along with Rahman, Wyatt has held several community meetings, sent out materials to neighbors who reside nearby, and the two have walked through the community to talk with residents personally.
“This has been a process,” Wyatt said. “We walked the street. We walked the community several days ago door-to-door to hear concerns. We asked questions.”
Wyatt also took the opportunity during the meeting to reassure neighbors.
“It’s going to be a community center. It’s not a mosque,” Wyatt said.
Ivy Diggs-Washington plans to hold him to that. She has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years and has attended at least two community meetings about the planned center.
“That’s why I’m here. I want to be sure that my voice is heard because I … welcome you with open arms. However if this does not work out the way you say it’s going to work out, I’m going to be one of the loudest people at the councilman’s office saying, ‘Hey wait a minute. This is not what we discussed. This is not what we said.’ ”
Another concern among neighbors was parking, which they say is tight already on the residential street. But the property already has space for eight cars in the back of the building, and a neighbor who has a big backyard that could hold about 10 cars will allow parking there, too, after removing a fence and paving the surface, said Wyatt, who supports the project.
“I think it’s wonderful. Our communities are becoming more diverse so we might as well get adjusted to other communities,” Wyatt said. “So we can have a level of respect that everyone desires and wants.”
“As we walked through the community, walked up Minnesota, so many people had positive things to say about the Muslim community and what they’ve done already. That speaks volumes. It made me feel good that when we talked, a lot of folks said these are nice people, they worked with us,” Wyatt said. “We know how word of mouth travels. If it was something bad, people would definitely tell you.”