Photographer Danny Goldfield, headliner of the inaugural art exhibit at Park51 Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, met the center's founders last year when it was the target of national vitriol.

Protesters derided an Islamic center's positioning two blocks from Ground Zero as an affront to 9/11 victims' families. Politicians debated it as a hot-button issue in the midterm elections.

Goldfield, 44, of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, remembered being baffled by the backlash.

"I didn't really understand what the problem was that people had with the center," he said last week. "They were forming an opinion on it without getting to know the people behind it."

Park51 officials Wednesday will host an opening reception for Goldfield's NYChildren project, vivid photographs of young New Yorkers who come from more than 160 countries, reflecting the city's diverse immigrant culture.

The images of the child ambassadors from Bulgaria to Burundi will be Park51's first major public event.

"We believe that Danny's exhibit represents the diversity of New York City, a city for which we're trying to offer services as a community center," said show organizer and Park51 chief of staff Katerina Lucas. "We're just opening our doors and letting people see what we're about."

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Goldfield said the community center's aspirations are aligned with those of his exhibit.

NYChildren, a quest he launched in 2004 to photograph one child living in New York City from every country in the United Nations, required that he meet with immigrant communities he otherwise never would have crossed paths with, he said.

He touted Park51 as an opportunity to similarly bridge cultural gulfs.

"It's taking a step and trying to meet their neighbors and get to know them," said Goldfield, whose work has appeared in Life magazine.

A first-floor, 3,500-square-foot gallery space has been renovated for the show in the otherwise dilapidated building now used for Islamic prayer services and the occasional interfaith event.

Goldfield and Park51 last month raised more than $70,000 on the microfinancing site to print, frame and install the photos and renovate the gallery space with new walls, lighting and other fixtures. More than 300 people gave to the cause, titled "NYChildren Exhibit: Let's open Park51's doors to the world!"

Park51 and its mosque component, named PrayerSpace, are still years and millions of dollars away from the proposed eight- to 15-story structure once engulfed in controversy. The rancor has died down and Park51 officials are quietly proceeding with the development.

The event Wednesday coincides with the United Nations' International Day of Peace, officials pointed out.

Donations to Park51 to finance future arts events will be accepted at tomorrow's reception and throughout the three-month run of Goldfield's show, Lucas said, "as with any other gallery or museum."