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Ariel Rubin

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Whose Concern? NYC Street Art Makes Waves

Posted: 09/14/10 06:57 PM ET

Not far from a strip club called "New York Dolls" and the site of the worst terror attack ever on American soil stands the site of the proposed "Cordoba House," an Islamic center modeled much in the vein of New York's storied 92nd St Y that will include a swimming pool, restaurant and a "meditation and prayer space".

As Saturday's opposing 9/11 rallies showed, debate over the issue remains fever pitch, with both sides seeming increasingly polarized and divisive.

And then there are the "Concerned New Yorkers".

At first it was just patchwork over windows and signposts, deceptively simple. A piece of paper bisected by a black line with a Helvetica-fonted survey question on both sides: "The Ground Zero Mosque should not be built because" next to, "The Islamic Community Center should be built because." Then it started appearing everywhere, spreading upwards like wildfire from Lower Manhattan. And then the people began responding.

Just who are these concerned New Yorkers? It turns out the same art collective behind the ingenious send-up of Mayor Bloomberg's unprecedented third electoral run with their own Shepherd Fairey-esque campaign for another less than scrupulous billionaire by the name of C. Montgomery Burns. Garnering media attention and the most write-in votes, the Burns For Mayor campaign was a smash: a clever skewering of politicians making the rules up (or just buying them) as they go along.

The new campaign seems to take it a step further. According to Kenny Komer, who, along with fellow artists Adam Wissing and Boris Rasin, is a founder and principal member of this "rotating group of 20-something artists, designers, writers and musicians," the goal is to take this schismatic issue directly to the streets.

"Instead of filtering the results, we are letting people speak for themselves and have their responses viewed for every passerby to see, rich, poor, young, old, internet access or not." He notes with a smile that the response so far has been heavily in favor of the center being built, even though most media outlets have reported New Yorkers to be largely against it.

Adam Wissing sees the project as a "civilized and personal debate platform" as the fight over a piece of local real estate goes global.

"We want to document what people are feeling. The debate over Park51 has become so heated, so politicized, that we thought this platform would lend a voice to people who normally aren't heard over the protesters."

Coming on the heels of repugnant recent events that include an inebriated man urinating on a prayer rug in a mosque in Queens and the igniting of a Quran at the rally in Manhattan over the weekend, as well as the jingoistic declarations of hopeful politicians in this heated midterm election season, the ubiquitous posters are serving as a profoundly effective forum where arguments against the center range from vitriolic ("cause Muslims suck") to empathic ("I have 13 friends died [sic] in there").

As the debate continues to rage, it will be interesting to see how the populist-minded Concerned New Yorkers manage to document it. Perhaps even more interesting however was the remark made by one camera-clad tourist wading his way through the crowd at last Saturday's protests. "Can someone tell me," he inquired politely, "where the twin towers actually were?"