Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reality TV finalist Francisco Patino steered developer to mosque site near Ground Zero

As if the mosque controversy could not get any weirder, it turns out the person who found the site two blocks from Ground Zero was a teenage reality show contestant from Queens.

Not that young Francisco Patino can really be faulted.

He was just doing the bidding of a real estate developer who hired him in 2006 after chancing to see him on "American Inventor." The show happened to be on a floor-model TV while the developer was shopping at a Sharper Image in Manhattan.

"I saw him on TV and I like him," the developer, Sharif el-Gamal, said Wednesday.

Patino was a 19-year-old immigrant from Colombia who played on the Queens College soccer team and had gotten on the reality show with a dual-passenger bicycle he developed after he and his older brother tried to ride the same one.

He was a decidedly appealing contestant, embracing the spirit of invention and entrepreneurship that made his adopted country great. He appeared crushed when he was voted off in the finals, but a special guest came on the air to urge him on.

"Hey, Francisco, I'm Lance Armstrong. ... I want to wish you luck. ... Live strong!"

Gamal hired Patino and presented him with a map of the Financial District. The teen's orders were to scout out properties that might be suitable for an Islamic community center.

"I told him to go out and find available buildings for the project, and he did," Gamal said. "He's a phenomenal kid. ... He's a good one."

Patino compiled a list that came to include the old Burlington Coat Factory on Park Place. The owner said that by happy chance, it was being shown the following day.

Gamal went to see it and was not at all put off by its proximity to Ground Zero.

"We were looking at buildings all over the area. I liked a lot of them, but this was the one we ended up on," the developer recalled yesterday. "It was just meant to be."

Now 23, Patino declined to comment yesterday, not wishing to speak until he got permission from his boss at Chase Manhattan Bank.

Patino surely was aware of the building's location in relation to Ground Zero. And he surely knew about the war on terror, as the brother who had helped inspire the bicycle, Sergio Cadavid, had gone on to join the Army, serving two tours in Iraq.

Even so, Patino was barely a man in 2006 and had only come to this country when he was 12. No young newcomer could be expected to understand the sensitivities beneath the contradictions.

We solemnly called it hallowed ground and spoke of the importance of remembering the murdered innocents, yet five years after the attack we had yet to build a memorial.

Human remains were still being recovered in 2006 because there had been such a hurry to get traffic on West St. moving again that an area under a service road had not been properly searched.

The Deutsche Bank building on the other side of The Pit was being demolished with such criminal indifference to fire safety that two firefighters eventually would be killed there.

And the Burlington site was available in the first place only because businesses were not answering the call to stand up to the terrorists by relocating downtown.

Patino may not have been aware of any of these particulars, but nobody who walked down Park Place in 2006 could feel the area was being treated as sacred ground. He surely could not have imagined the passions and pain that would be roused four years hence.

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