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For Koreatown mosque congregants, parking is a challenge

Omar Haroon guards the secret of his Friday prayers parking spot even from close friends. People ask, but he refuses to spill.

For much of his life, the 33-year-old hedge fund manager has attended prayers at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles’ Koreatown district. And for much of that time, congregants have coped with a parking shortage by arriving early, by using illegal spots or by generously -- and privately -- tipping parking attendants at nearby businesses.

For years, Haroon and his father have parked at a nearby building that isn’t supposed to allow it and turns other congregants away. They pay the attendants the required parking rate and several dollars extra, in essence doubling the amount.

“The guys have told us not to tell anyone, not to tell our friends or anything,” Haroon said. “So we just stay totally quiet. We don’t want anything to jeopardize our parking.”

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Those attending churches and synagogues have holy days that fall on Saturdays and Sundays, when there are often relaxed parking restrictions, more available spaces and no street cleaning. But for Muslims, at least in Western countries, their Friday holy day means a balancing act between work, school and religious obligations.

Weekly prayer services at mosques fall during lunchtime on Fridays, which makes it possible for many Muslims to leave work at least briefly to attend. But that timing can also make it tricky to find convenient parking in crowded, car-obsessed cities like Los Angeles.

Good parking spots are especially important to mosque attendees who must rush out after the service to get back to work.

At King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, one-third of a mile of shady residential street runs beside the mosque. But street cleaning on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. puts half the street off limits during prayer hours. The mosque administration recently contacted the city to see if the time can be changed.

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A squeeze

The Islamic Center in Koreatown, which has been at its Vermont Avenue location since 1978, has a lot with 45 parking spaces, most of which are reserved for the disabled and for board members and employees of the mosque and its elementary school. About a dozen other vehicles squeeze onto the basketball court.

In recent years, as the congregation has grown, a handful of spaces have also been taken up with green carpets as worshipers spill out into the lot. That leaves most of the estimated 800 to 900 weekly attendees scattering in all directions in search of parking, legal or under the table.

“People are parking at the grocery stores, at the bowling alley -- pretty much people are doing all sorts of things and you see them walking from everywhere,” Haroon said.

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Haroon’s arrangement means he can spend a few extra minutes at the office if he needs to -- as it happens, prayers begin just as the stock market closes for the week -- and doesn’t have to worry about his car, a cobalt blue 2007 Porsche.

It would be tougher to park on the street, Haroon said: “People coming for prayers try and squeeze in so there’s no room between the bumpers.”

The Islamic Center’s leaders have tried to find solutions. For a while, they arranged to rent part of a county parking lot directly behind the mosque, but the county recently decided it needed the space, said Mohammed Qureshi, the center’s administrator.

In early 2009, an empty Chevrolet dealership beside the center -- with about 150 parking spots -- was put up for sale. The mosque submitted a $6.5-million bid but lost to a Korean supermarket. Construction began a few weeks ago.

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On a recent Friday the imam stood at the mosque’s pulpit, giving a sermon about the importance of forgiveness. As he spoke, latecomers streamed into the prayer area, having walked blocks to get there. The construction work next door was clearly audible from inside.

That lot “definitely would have alleviated our parking problem,” Qureshi said. “It could have covered our needs.” He said mosque administrators have approached the supermarket’s owners about renting out part of the lot during prayers but don’t have an answer yet.

Moin Kureshi, a longtime congregant at the mosque, said that for many years he ate lunch each Friday at the Denny’s restaurant two blocks away and then walked to the center, leaving his vehicle at the restaurant. Eventually the owner figured out what Kureshi was up to and put an end to it.

“He knew what we were doing because it only happened on Friday,” Kureshi said.

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Secret deals

Now Kureshi, who drives to Koreatown each Friday from his security company in Torrance, has an arrangement at another business. But he wouldn’t speak about it on the record, not even in vague terms, for fear of losing his latest system for getting to the mosque in time for the imam’s call to prayer.

Every Friday a security guard stands at the partly closed gate of the mosque’s parking lot, allowing only a few cars inside. Drivers slow in front of the center, craning their necks to read parking signs. Worshipers come walking from the east and west, north and south.

“I don’t know where people park, it’s always been a mystery,” said Jihad Turk, the center’s director of religious affairs. “It’s a bit of an enigma.”

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raja.abdulrahim@ latimes.com


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