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New York Today: A Lost Little Syria

posted on: May 24, 2016

The New York Times

Good morning on this drizzly Tuesday.

You’ve probably heard of Little Italy. But Little Syria?

Travel back in time, New York.

From the 1890s to the 1920s, Washington Street from Rector Street to Battery Place was the heart of New York’s Arab world, filled with thousands of immigrants from Greater Syria — roughly present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Many left their homelands because of troubles like starvation, lawlessness and religious intolerance.

Others came for economic opportunity, said Matthew Jaber Stiffler of the Arab American National Museum, in Dearborn, Mich.

Many of those involved in Greater Syria’s silk industry, for example, took their talents to New York, where they became renowned for making kimonos and women’s undergarments, Mr. Stiffler told us.

The streets of Little Syria were also vibrant with smoking parlors, cafes whipping up Turkish coffee and shops brimming with everything from rugs and brass lanterns to pistachios imported from the Middle East.

But the bustling neighborhood began to dwindle after the Immigration Act of 1924, Mr. Stiffler said.

And the Little Syria that remained was demolished when construction for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel began in the 1940s.

You won’t catch a whiff of the hookah and spices there anymore, but look closely at Washington Street today, and you can still see traces of the quarter’s Downtown Community House and St. George Chapel.

You can learn more about Little Syria and its legacy at an exhibit by the Arab American National Museum that opens tomorrow evening at the Department of Records and Information Services on Chambers Street.