Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 September 2019

The battle to save New York's 'Little Syria' from being forgotten

The city's first Arab neighbourhood is close to vanishing, partly because of post 9/11 reconstruction

The St George Chapel is one of the few original buildings left in the New York City area once known as Little Syria. AFP
The St George Chapel is one of the few original buildings left in the New York City area once known as Little Syria. AFP

It was once a thriving souq, the place where New Yorkers first gained a taste of the Middle East. From the 1880s until the 1920s, Washington Street, in the city's financial district, was filled with Arab artisans weaving designs from imported silk and lace for the wealthy Americans who could afford them. Surrounding shops sold rugs and objets d'art. And food vendors offered produce ranging from pistachios to spices in between dozens of Arab coffee stands where wholesale merchants did larger deals and exchanged gossip.

But today in the shadow of the former World Trade Centre site, only three low-profile buildings of the once thriving area of Manhattan known as Little Syria remain. A new phalanx of skyscrapers, mostly offices, apartments and hotels dominate.

With a large vacant commercial plot up for sale next to old Washington Street, its past could soon be a memory.

Also commonly referred to as New York's Arab Quarter, the area was where thousands of immigrants from Greater Syria – today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories – made their home, renting rooms just yards from where they had stepped off ships on Ellis Island.

The New York Port Authority ID card issued to Aleppo-born Syrian immigrant Frank Germack. AFP
The New York Port Authority ID card issued to Aleppo-born Syrian immigrant Frank Germack. AFP

Part of the cause of its vanishing past is that the September 11 attacks caused devastation beyond the Twin Towers, requiring demolitions that lessened the number of old buildings and changed the character of the area.

“It is maddening,” said Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, who is campaigning to ensure the area's Middle Eastern roots are preserved.

“Before reconstruction began there were public consultations called listening sessions, where everyone agreed that the historical character of this part of New York had to be recognised. Instead, there has been lots of attention given to some of the most expensive skyscrapers in the world, but little else.”

Mr Fine, a Harvard graduate and historian, has recently rallied to raise interest in preserving the site by conducting guided walking tours of the area at weekends.

But he has also compiled an updated study of an official 2003 report into buildings identified in the area as valuable landmarks to city authorities. It shows that more than a quarter of them have since been demolished.

Those who frequented Little Syria included Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet who had emigrated with his parents while still a child, writing his best-known work, The Prophet, published in 1923 by Albert A Knopf, in New York. One of the benches at a nearby plaza and rest area bears a plaque in his name and quotes him: "Those are the sons of my homeland, who are born in cottages and die in palaces."

The aftermath of the Second World War heralded a lot of redevelopment and land reclamation at what was then a waterfront, leading much of the Arab community to move to other areas of New York and the US.

A letter from the Syrian-American Club of New York, part of an exhibition on Little Syria shown at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in 2016-17. AFP
A letter from the Syrian-American Club of New York, part of an exhibition on Little Syria shown at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in 2016-17. AFP

The one ancient building that does have landmark status and which cannot be pulled down is the St George Chapel, where the mostly Roman Catholic Syrian and Lebanese immigrants worshipped.

The facade still stands but inside is a Chinese restaurant, owned by the adjoining Holiday Inn, whose recent construction includes plastic silver outer cladding that adds nothing of architectural interest.

“It's a shame,” said Mr Fine. “Downtown tourism and a lot of residential and office space is what the area has turned into. Historic preservation does not seem to be part of the plan.”

The two other remaining buildings on Washington Street dating from its Arab era – a community house where new arrivals gathered, and a tenement building – should not be altered, he says. They were deemed to not be of enough architectural interest to be landmarked in a past bid for such status.

But Matthew Stiffler, research manager at the Arab American Museum in Dearborn and a lecturer at the University of Michigan, said the settlement had significant historical importance.

“For the Arab-American community, Europe was not the only place they moved to, New York was the hub. From there the wholesalers would supply their goods across the country,” he told The National.

The Oussani brothers, Joe and Yak, were traders in the Middle Eastern community in New York known as Little Syria. AFP
The Oussani brothers, Joe and Yak, were traders in the Middle Eastern community in New York known as Little Syria. AFP

Of Little Syria not being landmarked, he said: “What is dangerous about that is that if it is not marked in some way it can lead subsequent generations to mistakenly think Arab immigration, be they Christians, Muslims or Jews, is a recent thing. Such immigration has been happening since the 1880s.”

Mr Fine said his next move was to ask the new head of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to evaluate his study and tour the area with him to see what was at stake.

A spokeswoman for the LPC said it received many requests for landmark status and that all bids were considered on merit of architectural, cultural or historical importance, pointing out that St George's Chapel gained recognition in 2009.

But she added: “After receiving a request to evaluate the Downtown Community House at 105-107 Washington Street and the adjoining tenement at 109 Washington Street, the Landmarks Preservation Commission carefully reviewed the properties and found that they lack the architectural and historical significance necessary to be considered eligible for designation as individual landmarks.”

Updated: May 16, 2019 07:34 PM

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