Victim of progress? Mosque in Over-the-Rhine to leave for building purchased in West End

What's good for OTR isn't so good for mosque
What's good for OTR isn't so good for mosque
What's good for OTR isn't so good for mosque
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jun 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-20 11:30:28-04

CINCINNATI -- What’s been good for Over-the-Rhine has not been so good for the worshippers at the neighborhood mosque.

The Masjid Al-Ashab, or “church of the companion,” has purchased a former school in the West End and plans to move there as soon as the building can be made usable.

The leaders of the mosque say that the gentrification of Over-the-Rhine, while a positive in many ways, has made it impossible for them to remain there.

There are two main problems, said Amir Fealzadeh, who organized the mosque 11 years ago: the bars and the parking. The mosque is now surrounded by bars and restaurants that serve liquor, which is problematic because the Koran generally prohibits Muslims from drinking alcoholic beverages.

It’s not the kind of thing Fealzadeh wants young Muslims to see or be around, he said.

And because so many new businesses have moved in, it’s sometimes impossible to find a parking space near the storefront mosque.

Omar Otrch, a regular at the mosque, has sometimes had to drive to the mosque in Clifton for prayers because he can’t find a parking spot.

When you do find a space, Fealzadeh said, you have to pay $8 — and who wants to pay $8 just to pray and go home?

Mason resident Ali Hussain, who works as a vice president and trust officer for U.S. Bank downtown, usually says two of his five daily prayers at the Over-the-Rhine mosque.

“It was so easy to park anywhere … and then get on with your business,” he said.

But lately, Hussain said, it’s been very difficult to do that.

Convenience was one of the reasons the mosque was created in the first place.

“We felt the need for the local population to walk to a mosque,” Hussain said, as worshippers can do in most Muslim countries.

There used to be a mosque at 15th and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine, but it closed about a dozen years ago after the building changed hands, Fealzadeh said.

When that happened, he said, he renovated an abandoned building at 1233 Vine St. and organized Masjid Al-Ashab. He put $45,000 of his own money into the rehab, he said, so much that the mosque didn’t have to pay rent for several years.

It remains a very sparsely furnished house of worship, with just two small prayer rooms, one for women and one for men. There’s a rack where worshippers can leave their shoes, carpeting for them to kneel on and shelves that hold a small collection of Korans and religious books.

But there are bathrooms, and over the years, the mosque became more than a house of worship. It became a place where those in need could wash up and get back on their feet.

“People who had nowhere to go would come here to rest,” Hussain said.

Amir would get calls from people who needed a place to stay for the night, Hussain said, and he would open the mosque to them. Locals, not just Muslims, waited in long lines for food that the mosque handed out, free of charge, on Fridays and Sundays.

“People come here more than all the rich churches,” Fealzadeh said. “They feel more comfortable in a place like this.”

That will all change in about six months, he said, when the mosque moves to 933 Bank St., the former home of the King Academy Community School, which moved to 224 W. Liberty St.

The mosque purchased the property earlier this month for $100,000. It took about two months to raise the money, Fealzadeh said, with some large donations coming from Saudi Arabians visiting Cincinnati for medical treatment.

The building has a huge gym, three floors, six large classrooms, a kitchen, plenty of parking and 3,000 square feet for the main prayer room, he said. But it needs lots of work, having been empty for about two years. Fealzadeh filled and removed 10 90-pound bags of dirt and debris from the roof, he said.

His hope is that in time, it will also become more than a mosque -- that is, a place where the down-and-out can get a shower and new clothes, he said, and where the unemployed can learn job skills.

The 60 to 100 people who worship at the Vine Street mosque have been making their evening prayers and breaking their Ramadan fast together at the new building. During the 30 days of Ramadan, which began earlier this month, Muslims don’t eat or drink during daylight hours.

Once they move the mosque, what will happen with the Vine Street building?

It’s owned by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing for low-income residents. The mosque rents the first floor, and the upper floors are residences, said executive director Mary Burke Rivers. She declined to discuss future uses for the first floor because she hadn’t yet talked with the mosque leadership about the move.

Fealzadeh, a former restaurateur, would like to see it become a restaurant that serves halal food — that is, food that’s permissible for Muslims to eat. It could also sell halal groceries, he added.

There are a few such restaurants in the Tri-State area, he said, but not many.

He would miss having a connection with the building — he has made a lot of memories there, he said.