In 2002, a century-old cornerstone of an Arab-Christian church was found among the rubble of the World Trade Center. The fragment of St. Joseph’s Maronite Church was a reminder that before the two colossal towers stood on the Lower Manhattan site, it was a neighborhood called Little Syria. Although the enclave’s physical remains have all but vanished, its cultural legacy survives, from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue to Arab American communities around the United States.
Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy revives this history with historic text and objects. Organized by the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the exhibition was previously on view in a smaller version at the New York City Department of Records and Information Services, and is now installed in the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. The multi-room show is situated just above Ellis Island’s Great Hall, where many of the immigrants from Greater Syria (which included areas of today’s Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) passed through. Like the millions of immigrants who entered the United States through Ellis Island, their reasons for arriving were diverse, whether avoiding Ottoman (later Turkish) army conscription, oppression, or poverty. Above all, there was the promise of opportunity.
Little Syria, or the Syrian Quarter or Syrian Colony as it was also called, was centered on Washington Street and roughly stretched from Battery Park to above Rector Street, although like much of Manhattan’s neighborhoods in the 19th and 20th centuries these borders were in flux. From the 1880s to the 1940s, the community thrived. There were cafés and restaurants offering kibbee and Arabic coffee. By 1908, around 70 linen businesses were operating in Little Syria, many staffed by immigrants familiar with the Lebanese silk industry. These also supplied Arab American peddlers and merchants who traveled the country. And non-Arabic speaking New Yorkers also were drawn to the neighborhood, particularly other immigrants from the region, like Greeks, Armenians, and Turks. For instance, Kalil’s restaurant began as a small venture in Little Syria, then became so popular a second location was opened on Park Place that could hold 1,000 guests.
If you go looking for Little Syria today, you’ll find just three buildings from the era: St. George’s Melkite Church (finally landmarked in 2009), a tenement, and the Downtown Community House. The rest was destroyed by eminent domain, both with the entrance ramps for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel which caused much of lower Washington Street to be abandoned by 1946, and the construction of the World Trade Center started in 1966.
Yet why was Little Syria, one of the country’s biggest and earliest Arab communities, so quickly forgotten by the majority of New Yorkers? There are in fact many New York City businesses that can trace their roots to Little Syria, such as Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue that started in 1895 on Washington Street. The Hawaiian shirt, mass-produced and popularized by Alfred Shaheen, can even trace its history to Little Syria, where in 1888 his grandfather Assy Shaheen opened a dry goods store and later branched into textiles. What’s problematic is the selective nature of our collective memory.
As Alexander Nazaryan pointed out in a 2014 Newsweek article, you won’t find Little Syria in the historic section of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The Washington Street Historical Society was active in installing a sign and bench plaques in Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza in 2013; in Washington Street itself there is no information about its Little Syria past. And giving this history more visibility is especially vital now. Many in the United States are incredibly resistant to accepting refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War; Donald Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric about banning Muslim immigrants hardly slowed his campaign. Before there was a World Trade Center, there was an Arab Christian church, and both of those stories together only make the cultural history of the country richer.
Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy continues through January 9, 2017 at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration (New York Harbor).