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'Little Syria' Exhibit Brings New York's Lost Arab Neighborhood to Life

posted on: Jun 7, 2016

Little Syria, a community of thousands of Arabs at the tip of Manhattan, was once a vibrant neighborhood in the early 1900s.
By Irene Plagianos


At the turn of the century, decades before the World Trade Center, Lower Manhattan’s Washington Street was bustling with merchants and cafes, where puffs of hookah smoke intermingled with the spicy sweet aromas of Middle Eastern fare.

The long gone neighborhood, called Little Syria, was the thriving home to thousands of Arab immigrants who had made their first journey to the United States.

“Little Syria, N.Y.: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy,” an exhibit dedicated to the neighborhood — one of the earliest Arab settlements in the U.S. — is now on display at the New York City Department of Records.

Through photos and artifacts, the exhibit — which is curated by the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb that’s home to one of the country’s largest Arab-American populations — creates a portrait of a community that many never even knew existed.

Despite its name, the neighborhood was actually made up of people from what was then Greater Syria — areas now including Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan — and the vast majority of the immigrants were Christian, according to historians.

A baker slices his baklava in Little Syria. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

For decades, starting in the 1880s, the enclave flourished, home to noted Arab writers Khalil Gibrani and Ameen Rihani, as well as the first Arab-language newspapers in the country.

But by the early 1940s the neighborhood had mostly disappeared — much of the community was displaced by the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

The vibrant neighborhood once lined with shops selling Arabic foods, and merchants on the street peddling wares like handmade rugs and brass lamps, is now barely marked in Lower Manhattan, said Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Historical Society, an organization dedicated to preserving Little Syria’s history.

Children play in the Little Syria neighborhood. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

One former Syrian church, called St. George Chapel, a landmarked building now home to a restaurant, along with an old tenement building at 109 Washington St. and its neighboring Downtown Community House are the last remnants of the spaces once occupied by the large community, said Fine, who helped consult on the exhibit.

Fine and his group have recently had plaques placed in nearby Elizabeth Berger park to commemorate the lost neighborhood, and are hoping to do more to preserve the legacy of Little Syria.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the history of Arabs in America, and this neighborhood shows us a robust immigrant community, just like so many other immigrants who came to New York,” Fine said. “But that early story of Arab immigration is really missing, its a history that’s been lost in the collective memory.”

“Little Syria, N.Y.: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy,” is on display through September at the New York City Department of Records, 31 Chambers St. An expanded version of the exhibit will move to Ellis Island in October, where it will remain through January.