Photo exhibit at future site of Park51 showcases children of the world

Calvin Alfarius and his sister, Samira, represent the country of Indonesia in Danny Goldfield’s “NYChildren” exhibit, currently on view at the future site of Park51. Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

BY ALINE REYNOLDS   |  Pristine white walls splashed with photographs of playful children now make up the 4,500-square-foot remodeled space at the future site of the proposed Islamic community center known as Park51.

The art exhibit, entitled “NYChildren,” features a series of 169 photographs of first-generation or immigrant youths ages 12 and under that now live in New York City. The youngest child is a 34-day-old toddler from Ethiopia, who is shown sleeping peacefully on her parents’ bed in their New York home.

The exhibit has been showcased at a dozen other locations domestically and in Denmark, according to the photographer, Danny Goldfield, who has 24 children left to photograph to complete his project. When finished, there will be one child from every country in the world. The inspiration behind Goldfield’s project was Rana Sodhi, brother of Balbir Sodhi, a Sikh in Arizona who was shot and killed in front of his family-owned gas station four days after 9/11. Sodhi’s death was one of the first post-9/11 hate-crime murders in the country, Goldfield noted.

It was Sodhi brothers’ innovative and good-hearted spirit that inspired Goldfield to take on the daunting project, the photographer said in a speech he made at the exhibit’s opening at 45-51 Park Place on Wednesday, Sept. 26. Goldfield described Balbir as a generous individual who gave away candy to customers and their families and, hours before he was murdered, emptied his pockets at a local fundraising drive for 9/11 victims’ families.

Goldfield admired Balbir’s brother, Rana, who despite his loss, had a desire to open his heart to others.

“He had this simple prescription of making the world better by meeting his neighbors. I just felt it was incredibly brave,” said Goldfield. “It just reminds me of all of the generosity of all the families and all the children you see in these photos [who] were willing to allow me into their house and to document their lives.”

Goldfield, who was in graduate school in California at the time of 9/11, also felt a personal need to give back to the city he called home for several years.

“Thinking in real-time, I wonder [if] I wanted to do something to help, since I wasn’t here [on 9/11],” said Goldfield. “Maybe it was this idea of coming back and helping [New York] heal.”

A few hundred people showed up at the exhibit’s opening reception. There was also live entertainment by the New York Arabic Orchestra, who performed contemporary instrumental compositions from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Sharif El-Gamal, C.E.O. of SoHo Properties, the developer behind Park 51, was bursting with excitement at the sight of the crowd.

“It’s exciting to be able to share with everybody a little glimpse into what our dream and our goal is [for Park51] in Lower Manhattan,” said El-Gamal. “It’s so humbling to have a packed house and a line right out the door… and we’re just getting started. We’re excited about what the future holds.”

Julie Menin, chair of Community Board 1, praised Goldfield for his vision. “Lower Manhattan is obviously the birthplace of our great country… and so to have this exhibit here, really reflecting a diversity of cultures and a multitude of cultures, is incredibly appropriate,” said Menin. “It’s great tonight to see and to hear so many children who are here, because they’re the future of our neighborhood.”

Indeed, several of the children featured in the photographs came to the reception to see younger versions of themselves on the wall — including eight-year-old Julia Petkov from Bulgaria, who Goldfield captured in a moment of excitement in front of a Chistmas tree when she was a toddler.

“I’m really excited to see my picture,” said Julia. “I always wanted to be famous!”

Queens resident Rini Haryani, whose Indonesian children are featured in one of the photos, said she hopes the exhibit will help dispel post-9/11 discrimination against Muslims by shining a light on New York’s multiculturalism.

“It’s going to be a good memory for them to meld in with different kids from all other countries so they can grow up and make peace,” said Haryani.

“The idea’s really good and stuff, and I feel kind of famous, ‘cause people are seeing us,” said Haryani’s daughter, 13-year-old Samira Alfarius, who was photographed kissing the cheek of her younger brother, Calvin Alfarius.

“I like that my sister was kissing me ‘cause I love her so much!” chimed in Calvin.

Jessica Sauer, who lives in the Bronx with her three young children from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, heard about Goldfield’s project on the news and reached out to the photographer.

“I love seeing the diversity of the pictures,” Sauer said. “We were excited to be a part of a project that shows how diverse and wonderful New York City is.”

Sauer and other parents in attendance said they were pleased with Goldfield’s choice of photographs.

“Whatever he selected really captured the personalities of what these kids probably were like,” said Bob Callahan, admiring the candid shot of his daughter, Eliza Callahan, mowing the lawn of the family’s former backyard in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. “It’s a nice thing to take a break and look to see the human possibilities and the potentials of kids.”

“I think [Goldfield] did a wonderful job capturing their essence,” echoed Cape Verde Islands native Sergia Andrade, whose 18-year-old daughter, Zoe Andrade, is featured in a photo playing in a Brooklyn park. The photo of her daughter, Andrade said, “is very much [Zoe]. She was very active as a kid.”

Saman Naquvi from New Jersey, who has been praying at the Park Place mosque since last fall, was pleasantly surprised by the sprawling adjacent space that she hardly knew about.

“Since I’ve been coming here, the whole side of the building has been boarded off,” said Naquvi.

Naquvi  called the exhibit “gorgeous” and said she felt like it “definitely illustrates how American” the space is.

While the photos themselves might not necessarily quell the opposition to Park51, Naquivi noted, “If people look at them and realize how diverse New York is and how this kind of space is representative of that, maybe their hearts will change.”

“NYChildren” will be on view at 45-51 Park Place through Wed., Dec. 21. Hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.park51.org.