Advocates seek preservation of Arab New York

Through the Washington Street Historical Society’s work, recognition of Little Syria has improved.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Syrian school children in New York, early 1900s. (Washington Street Historical Society)
Rediscovering history. Syrian school children in New York, early 1900s. (Washington Street Historical Society)

NEW YORK - In the early 20th century, within view of the Statue of Liberty and blocks from Wall Street, an immigrant enclave known as Little Syria thrived in lower Manhattan.

Since 2011, the Washington Street Historical Society has worked to memorialise and preserve the Arab presence and literary output of Little Syria, which was home to dozens of Arabic-language newspapers and to writers Khalil Gibran, Ameen Rihani and Elia Abu Madi.

The society hosts walking tours, maintains an artefact collection and advocates for historic landmark designations from the city.

Yet, Little Syria, just more than a mile from Manhattan’s Chinatown and Little Italy and abutting a heavily trafficked touristic zone, remains relatively unrecognised, a historic district buried beneath layers of urban development.

In October, Society President Todd Fine led a group of mostly Arabs and Arab Americans on a walking tour through Little Syria, which the society also refers to as the Lower West Side, breathing life into a neighbourhood of construction cranes, financial institutions and major thoroughfares, with descriptions of coffee shops, shisha and Syrian pastries.

Fine’s tours paint a portrait of Arab life in early 20th century Manhattan through the works of mahjar writers, photographs that capture Arab street life and more than a pinch of necessary imagination from participants. Physical remnants of Little Syria are scant.

Since 9/11, the Lower West Side has been in a state of constant construction with megaprojects such as the World Trade Centre redevelopment and the Goldman Sachs headquarters. To many, the resulting changes did not benefit average New Yorkers.

“The World Trade Centre reconstruction became something about corporate and luxury real estate, which is not what it was supposed to be,” Fine said.

The decline and erasure of Little Syria far precede the tragedy of 9/11, however. In fact, the life and death of Little Syria are intertwined with many key processes in 20th century US urban history.

Arab assimilation, spatial relocation into the suburbs and immigration legislation that virtually banned Arab immigration from the early 1920s until the mid-1960s left Little Syria without many Syrians — or Lebanese, Palestinians, Armenians, Greeks and Monrovians, who also called the neighbourhood home.

Controversial development known as urban renewal — the destruction of neighbourhoods to make way for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Centre complex — left Lower Manhattan depleted of residents and physical traces of Little Syria.

“Anything involving landmark preservation [is] especially hard when you have a neighbourhood that is a focus for development,” Fine said.

Three adjoining buildings make up the best evidence of Little Syria: a five-storey tenement, the last building of its type on Washington Street; the six-storey Downtown Community House, once a place that assisted immigrants; and Saint George’s Church, a former Melkite church now unceremoniously occupied by a Chinese restaurant and bar.

While Saint George’s Church, with its notable terracotta facade and relief of Saint George, is a designated landmark, the other two buildings are unprotected.

“We thought if we just tell this story, we’ll figure out some way to save these buildings,” Fine said, “but even despite all this attention, we kept getting rejected by the city.”

Still, through the society’s work, recognition of Little Syria has improved.

The city will soon redesign Elizabeth Berger Park, at the mouth of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, to incorporate public art by Sara Ouhaddou, a French artist of Moroccan origin, whose design will use Arabic calligraphy to memorialise writers of the mahjar press.

Scholars and advocates are rediscovering Arab histories of the Lower West Side in untapped or untranslated archives. A recently found New York Sun article from 1912 headlined “Mohammadens Now Have a Place of Worship Here,” describes a mosque in Little Syria operated by the Ottoman consulate.

Unfortunately, this history was unknown during the 2010 debate over the proposed Park51 development, known to many as the “ground zero mosque.” Conservative bloggers and like-minded politicians erupted over the proposed Islamic prayer space and cultural institution.

“[The Ottoman] mosque is about the same distance from the World Trade Centre site as that ‘ground zero mosque,’” Fine said. “Imagine if at the time people had known this story.”

Many stories from Little Syria are hidden yet within reach. Amid rising nativism in the United States, such stories offer an account of Arab belonging — however gradual or contested — that remains relevant.