Discovering “Little Syria”—New York’s Long-Lost Arab Neighborhood

I don’t think much of the patch of Lower Manhattan surrounding the former World Trade Center towers that I pass through almost daily on my way between work and home in Jersey City. Between the Jeff Koons balloon statue in front of the PATH station to the Century 21 department store, and south to Zuccotti Park, the landscape is teeming with scaffolding, glossy announcements of things to come, construction cranes, and throngs of tourists coming to pay their respects to the 9/11 Memorial Tribute Center, and, it seems, simply to stand on the street and ogle the spot of sky where the towers used to be.

So I was kind of shocked to find out recently that from 1880 to 1940, the stretch of the Lower West Side of Manhattan from Park Street down to Battery Park, along Greenwich and Washington Streets, was known as “Little Syria.” An exhibit of the same name has been running this month, created by the Arab American National Museum of Dearborn, Michigan, in a space rented from Three Legged Dog, a multi-arts space carved out of the ground floor of the Brooklyn Battery Parking Garage.

This very block was the first destination for the waves of immigrants from the Ottoman Empire-occupied lands known as “Greater Syria,” which now encompass Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel. This first Arabic-speaking community in the U.S. was home to at least 50 Arabic language newspapers and magazines, dozens of Eastern Christian churches, and bustling restaurants, bakeries, silk-traders, tailors, all living vertically next to the elevated train tracks, in time-honored New York City tenement tradition.

Only, in contrast to Chinatown or the Lower East Side, there is nearly nothing left of Little Syria.

I walked what remains of Little Syria with Joseph Svehlak, a longtime tour guide and founder of Friends of the Lower West Side, whose mother, of Czech heritage, grew up in the neighborhood. He hadn’t realized its significance to the Arab American community until he was lobbying the New York Landmark Commission to preserve the former St. George’s Melkite Church on Washington Street, and found out he was not alone. That’s when he met Todd Fine, the dynamic leader of a group called Save Washington Street. Fine also led a years-long campaign to commemorate the centennial of the first Arab-American novel, The Book of Khalid, by Ameen Rihani, culminating in its successful reissue by Melville House Press in 2011.

Rihani wrote the book in Little Syria, a member of the “Pen Group” of Syrian-Lebanese writers that also included the much-more-famous Kahlil Gibran. For Fine, the Save Washington Street project is part of the same effort. “We are persistent,” he told me by phone, “because these stories have a real impact on people.” Telling stories grounded in real Arab-American history is the only way to reach understanding.

And understanding is still sorely needed. One imagines what the Islamophobic activists who conjured the “Ground Zero Mosque” debacle a couple years back would do with the news of an Arab neighborhood in the shadow of the former World Trade Center. To this day, there is always a metal barrier in front of 51 Park Street, which still has the faded outline of its Burlington Coat Factory sign on the front, and at least one NYPD officer standing quietly outside. The fact that the Arab-American neighborhood pre-exists the destruction of the towers flips their script about “Muslim” vs. “American.”

Of course, the majority of Arabs who immigrated to the United States in the Little Syria era were Christians, some trying to escape the Ottoman Empire’s new policy of mandatory conscription into the army for the sons. But public discourse since the Tea Party has sunk so low that many of those who objected to the Muslim community center actually known as Park 51 made no distinction between “Arab” and “Muslim”. Just this week, the Dearborn Arab International Festival, an 18-year-old tradition begun to support Arab-owned businesses on a previously neglected Main Street, was cancelled due to escalating tensions brought about by members of Qur’an-burning Terry Jones’ congregation who come to protest the festival every year. An Arab festival, not a Muslim festival. Pamela Geller famously objected to the teaching of the Arabic language because it might lead to Islamist indoctrination. It might also, Little Syria tells us, lead to literature, music, and community.

We begin the tour standing on the edge of a tiny pocket park between Greenwich Street and the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the south, the building of which in the 1940s destroyed most of the last residential buildings via eminent domain. In the 1960s, the building of the World Trade Center took care of much of the rest. The tunnel to the south, the tower to the north, but even in the 1980s, there were still “pockets” of human-scaled buildings dating back to the early 19th century.

The 9/11 attacks not only destroyed the World Trade Center but also destroyed even more physical remnants of its previous life, including St. Joseph’s Greek Orthodox Church. During the cleanup, rescue workers found a cornerstone dating back to the Little Syria era. It had been kept in the Greek Orthodox church, from when St. Joseph’s was a Lebanese Maronite Catholic chapel in the 1940s. That congregation had moved from the stretch of Washington Street which was now the Brooklyn Battery Parking Garage. Now it’s been moved again, to the Church of Our Lady of Lebanon, on Remsen Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, now the center of the Maronite community in New York.

But after 9/11, the pace of rebuilding turned ferocious and threatened to encroach on those last pockets of neighborhood, like the small block of Washington Street where the last three remnants of Little Syria stand. Friends of the Lower West Side and Save Washington Street lobbied the Landmark Commission to preserve a tenement building and a community center as well as the church. They only succeeded with the church, which was owned by a private family. There is an understanding that with the others, too much development money is at stake. The community center, 105-107 Washington Street, had been built by the Wall Street tycoons after World War I to care for the poor in their midst. “Wouldn’t that be something today?” Joe asked, rhetorically. Instead, the developer who owns it is likely to tear the five-story building down and replace it with a one-story building, thus preserving the precious air rights to the lot behind it, where there will be a skyscraper hotel.

The tenement next door is owned by a regular landlord, still residential. Its future is dubious, but Joe was not giving up on its preservation prospects. “See those lintels?” he asked. We looked dutifully above the windows of the tenement. “Those are cast iron. Otherwise, they would have long ago crumbled away. And in all my walks across the city for the last 15 years, I haven’t seen any other cast iron lintels in that Federal style.” The group of six of us must have all looked as nonplussed as I felt, because Joe backpedalled. “I’ll grasp at any straw,” he said, grinning, “to get these buildings preserved.” For him, the three buildings make the best sense as a whole—the religious, the civic, the residential, a “mini historical district,” the last representative of a long-lost neighborhood. The seven of us stood in the parking lot of the office building across the street, and Joe opened the zippered cover of his three-ring binder full of painstakingly collected photographs of the old neighborhood gathered for the exhibition. As he began reading aloud an oral history from Marian Sahadi Ciacci—“A Syrian who married an Italian!”—it felt like a religious occasion, a conjuring out of almost nothing of an entire world gone by.

The “Little Syria” exhibit closes Monday, May 27. Though the Arab American National Museum will continue to tour it, next to Philadelphia, it’s hard to imagine it being as evocative anywhere else. When it moves on, the Friends of the Lower West Side and Save Washington Street will keep working for recognition, asking the Landmark Commission to reevaluate their rejection of the community center and tenement, and getting Community Board 1 to put up signs commemorating the contributions of Little Syria. They’re also hoping to get Little Syria a mention in the permanent exhibition of the September 11th Museum  now in the works. Wish them luck.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011) and an editor of the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha.