Community activists are trying to preserve what’s left of the old New York neighborhood, and to memorialize what’s gone.
In recent months, numerous politicians—from governors and mayors to presidential candidates—have spoken out against accepting the Syrian refugees that President Obama pledged to take in. The rhetoric presented an image of immigrants of the Middle East, often ominously referred to as “that part of the world,” as threatening, untrustworthy, and foreign.
But Syrians, among other Arabs, are no strangers to America. They have a long and rich history in the U.S., and have made a place for themselves in cities around the country. And it all started in New York.
“Little Syria” or the “Syrian Quarter,” as it was called, existed from 1880 to 1946 in an area of Lower Manhattan centering around Washington and Rector streets (rough boundaries in blue in the map below). It was the “mother colony” for the thousands of Arab immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1880 to 1924, before the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted their entry. Most of them eventually moved to the outer boroughs or other cities around the country.
Today, only three of buildings from this enclave remain: the St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, a downtown community house, and a tenement at 109 Washington Street. For the last few years, historians at the Washington Street Historical Society have been pushing to preserve these last vestiges and the legacy of Little Syria.
Todd Fine, the president of the organization and a doctoral candidate in history at the CUNY-Graduate Center, says the story of Little Syria is still relevant today, given the negative stereotypes that Americans ascribe to Arabs—even those whose families have lived in America for decades.
“It’s a story that aligns with the stories that other Americans identify with,” Fine tells CityLab. “So if we can communicate that Syrians have been part of this country for a very long time … hopefully it will change people’s perceptions of what it means to be Arab American, and what people are like in that part of the world.”
What Little Syria and its residents were like
Lower Manhattan in the late 19th century wasn’t exactly the nicest area to live in. An article detailing the history of Little Syria in the Journal of Urban History describes conditions in that corner of the city as a “little short of horrid.”
The paper relays some sordid details. The area was surrounded by stinky waterways and full of open sewers. Heaps of garbage lay strewn about. Many of the buildings were crowded, unlit tenements badly in need of repair. Cholera and tuberculosis were rampant. And there was no escape from the noise of the many construction projects in the area.
It must have an unpleasant change for the new arrivals, the article’s author, independent scholar Gregory J. Shibley, writes:
Newcomers from Syria surely must have found this environment jolting to their sensibilities. The earliest pioneers hailed mostly from villages and towns in Mount Lebanon, where silk production and agriculture provided the principal sources of livelihoods. They had been rural dwellers, sometimes described in sources as peasants. Now they were unmistakably urbanites, crammed into a dim, narrow section of a metropolis.
These conditions didn’t improve much once the immigrants settled in, newspaper and historical accounts from the time have shown. Nevertheless, the folks in Little Syria didn’t just survive, they thrived. Many immigrants started out as peddlers—selling household goods and food and drinks on the streets. Soon hundreds of small businesses bloomed in the area. Pastries, fabrics, dried goods, tobacco products, and jewelry were all sold in these shops with arabic signage. There were around 300 Syrian-owned businesses at one point, according to the New York Public Library. Women, too, were very much a part of the economic fabric of the community.
Eventually the immigrants started printing their own newspapers there and launched local community organizations. Famous literary figures such as Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani rose from this neighborhood. The streets of Little Syria, which brimmed with food, drink, street peddlers, and tobacco smoke, also overflowed with ideas that came to occupy an important (although often overlooked) place in America’s intellectual history.
Here are some photos of life in Little Syria at the time from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress:
By the 1920s, though, a lot of the families living in this neighborhood had prospered enough to move out to Brooklyn (along with other Manhattanites at the time). From the Journal of Urban History:
New York was not just growing but maturing, modernizing. So were the Syrians in the city. Pragmatic, resourceful, and culturally middle class, they moved up and out, both literally and metaphorically.
The ones who remained were driven out by the 1940s, when demolitions started to make way for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.
Protecting the legacy of Little Syria
Carl Anthony Houck Jr., the collections director at the Washington Street Historical Society, is the great-great-grandson of one of the original inhabitants of Little Syria. He never saw the community himself but can conjure up a pretty strong image of what it may have been like in its heyday when he’s walking through it; via The New York Times:
“I kind of freeze in time,” said Mr. Antoun, a junior at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. “In the back of my mind, I envision peddlers from here down to the water. I see tenements, with mothers screaming out to their children to come to dinner.”
Now he and his colleagues are trying to get the city to protect the only in situ evidence of this bustling neighborhood. So far, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission only granted historical landmark status to one of the three remaining buildings—the ornate St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church. The city wasn’t quite convinced about doing the same for the other two buildings.
According to the commission, the sliver of Washington Street that the buildings are located on is too small to be designated a historic district. The commission’s letters to Fine and his colleagues say that there’s “only a limited connection between the individual buildings and the historic neighborhood,” and that the structures “lack the articulation necessary to be considered as architecturally significant individual landmarks.”
In other words, the other two monuments didn’t make the cut to be designated as landmarks in the eyes of the city. Despite this dead-end, community historians are determined to keep going. ”Because of these longstanding frustrations, we are now allying with other neighborhood groups that have existential fears about their neighborhoods,” Fine says.
The historical society is also trying to memorialize Little Syria in other ways. In 2014, it pushed for the 9/11 Memorial Museum to include a bit about the neighborhood’s history. According to Al Jazeera, the museum offered to house a temporary oral history exhibit about Little Syria for a few months. But Fine says he didn’t take that offer seriously and never followed up.
Now he and his colleagues have a new goal: to get “a substantial piece of public art” honoring the literary contributions that came out of Little Syria included in a new park being planned in the area. The point of this mission is to recognize this forgotten community in a visible public space. It’s one way that ethnic groups, especially ones that have faced discrimination, can celebrate their past and present.
This project expands on efforts that Fine and his colleagues started after Hurricane Sandy. Following the storm, they sponsored the repair of six damaged park benches in Elizabeth Berger Plaza, and affixed to them plaques with quotes honoring Arab-American culture. One of the benches showcases a quote by Khalil Gibran which reads, “those are the sons of my homeland, who are born in cottages, and die in palaces.”