Thursday, May 9, 2013

“LITTLE SYRIA” - NYC's Forgotten Neighborhood

Friday, May 3, 2013 - Monday, May 27, 2013
3LD Art & Technology Center
80 Greenwich Street, New York, NY 10006

by Wall Street Walks Tour Guide Marie Beirne

In the 1980’s, when I worked at NASDAQ on the 98th Floor of Two World Trade Center, every evening I waited for the x90 express bus to Yorkville, in front of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church which once stood across Liberty Street from the South Tower.

I have very fond memories of that divine and beloved little church, surrounded on three sides by the parking lot…looking a little lonely and frail, all by itself, especially at nightfall.

Tonight, at a lecture,  I found out that after 9/11, when workers got to the foundation of the destroyed St. Nicholas’,  buried in the rubble, they found artifacts of an old church, the cornerstone of St. Joseph's from “Little Syria”, New York City. The cornerstone now resides in Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights.

It is rare for New Yorkers to be surprised with news of an old neighborhood you never heard of before…what a delight the discovery of “Little Syria” was for the audience.

On April 30 at the 9/11 Tribute Center, Linda Jacobs, author, archaeologist, and an expert on the Syrian immigrant community in New York City, and Todd Fine, co-founder of the “Save Washington Street,” preservation campaign presented “Little Syria’: Lower Manhattan Before the World Trade Center,” a discussion on the history of the neighborhood in the southwestern corner of Lower Manhattan.

Beginning in the late 1800’s, the neighborhood developed a flavor of the Arab world from which many of the immigrants originated.  Their entrepreneurial spirit transformed the neighborhood, which came to be known as “Little Syria”, into a thriving community lined with shops and coffeehouses. Many of these immigrants owned small restaurants and grocery stores and had easy access to the docks where produce was brought in on boats from New Jersey.  Each furnished with signs written in their native Arabic.  Here bilingual Arab-Americans raised their families, educated their children, formed religious and community organizations and gradually became part of the life of the city of New York.

Eventually the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center displaced the folks in this neighborhood who moved to Atlantic Avenue and other neighborhoods of Brooklyn. 

Most New Yorkers, and even many Lebanese-Americans and Arab-Americans, are unaware that Lower Manhattan — along Washington Street from Battery Park through the 9/11 Memorial to Chambers Street — was once the center of Arab-American life in the United States, from the 1870s to the 1940s called “Little Syria” or the “Mother Colony.”

Today, only three buildings from that era remain and are physically connected: 103 Washington Street, an Arab church that served as a Irish bar for many years.   The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building a New York City landmark on July 14, 2009. 

Two other remaining buildings: 105-107 Washington Street, a community house inaugurated by the governor of New York Al Smith to serve the “Little Syria” neighborhood; and 109 Washington Street, a tenement building still containing apartments are now part of an active campaign by Save Washington Street [] a national coalition of organizations and individuals advocating for the preservation of the last two sites.

While the coalition’s first objective is to achieve the landmark designation of the community center at 105-107 Washington Street, already advocated by Community Board 1 of New York City, the long-term goal of the coalition is to improve education about this diverse neighborhood, and about Arab-American history .

Be sure to discover “Little Syria” for yourself, starting on May 3, and continuing through May 27, the Arab American National Museum (based in Dearborn, Michigan) will present at the 3LD Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich Street) an exhibition documenting the neighborhood's history.

Join Wall Street Walks on one of our guided walking tours to uncover more of the many, many secrets of NYC. We offer an exciting peek at the New York no one else knows!