Rediscovering 'Little Syria' after the storm passed

After surviving Superstorm Sandy, New York finally recognizes tiny section that thrived as far as the late 1800s

St. George's Syrian Catholic Church still stands as a reminder of 'Little Syria' in lower Manhattan.
Beyond My Ken/Wikipedia

NEW YORK — When Superstorm Sandy hit Lower Manhattan, historian Todd Fine’s mind went to the little white church on Washington Street — and he began to panic. 

For two years, Fine and Carl Antoun, who co-founded Save Washington Street, had been trying to rescue the two buildings adjacent to what had been St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church from developers by convincing the city to recognize the buildings as historical landmarks. The two buildings and the church, which was recognized as a landmark in 2009, are the last remaining vestiges of what had once been a bustling neighborhood known as “Little Syria.” The quarter was destroyed in 1946 to make way for the entrance of the Battery Park Tunnel and further diminished in the 1980s as part of a revitalization effort that followed the construction of the World Trade Center towers.

The surviving small strip of three buildings, dwarfed by the skyscrapers towering around them, offer a glimpse of a rich and erstwhile life — a church, a community center inaugurated by storied New York Gov. Al Smith to serve the neighborhood and a residential tenement building.

When Sandy headed toward New York, Fine was worried it would be nature — not development — that would ultimately threaten what he and Antoun had been trying so hard to preserve.  Instead, for all that it cost New Yorkers — including Antoun, whose house in the Rockaways in Queens was ravaged — Sandy also provided an opportunity for them to gain traction with the city, where their conservation efforts had long stalled.

“I was worried — that church is so delicate, right next to it is this huge hotel construction,” he said. “I was thinking what if this hurricane hits Manhattan straight on, cranes would fall off.”

While the church survived the storm relatively unscathed, the nearby plaza created by the intersection of Trinity, Greenwich and Edgar streets was damaged. Fine had been eyeing the modest green space as a potential site for a public art tribute to the giants of Arab and American literature who had once called the neighborhood home, such as Khalil Gibran and Ameen Rihani, whose novel, The Book of Khaled, had originally sparked Fine’s interest in Little Syria.

Fine and Antoun approached the city Parks department and proposed adopting “Edgar Street Park.” The city agreed. With $15,000 raised from the Arab-American community, they were able to fund repairs in the park, which included repainting the benches, infixing six plaques on them that commemorated the former Syrian- and Lebanese-American presence in the neighborhood and a newly installed sign at the entrance that informs passersby of the neighborhood’s rich history.

“This is planting a flag in some way,” Fine said. “This is the first public marker ever of Little Syria.”

On Tuesday, nearly a year after the storm, the repairs, plaques and signs were unveiled to a small gathering that included Arab-American community leaders, city leaders, borough historians, former residents of Little Syria, the Lebanese consul general, a reverend from Trinity Church and members of the Rihani family.

Marking history

The dedication of 'Little Syria' on Tuesday.
Patrick (Antonio Matias) Quealy/Washington Street Historical Society

Still, in spite of the celebration of New York’s rich history and diversity at the event, some Arab-Americans have no idea that a thriving Arab enclave existed in New York as far back as the late 1800s. Community members point to the quarter’s exclusion from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, after their efforts to be included were rebuked by the museum. Officials from Save Washington Street approached the museum after hearing there would be a display about the construction of the World Trade Center site and the demolition of Radio Row, the electronic district cleared to make way for the towers.

In the rubble of the World Trade Center, workers found the original cornerstone of one of the oldest Arabic churches in America. It now resides in a place of honor at the church in Brooklyn where the downtown parish moved when Little Syria disappeared.

“For years we’ve been telling our fellow New Yorkers that our history as Arab-Americans didn’t start with 9/11,” said Sarab Al-Jijakli, president of the Network of Arab-American Professionals. “Preserving what’s left helps us reclaim our lost narratives as Arab-Americans, as Americans and as New Yorkers. It’s sad that it took a national disaster for the city to allow that history to be recognized."

Hidden in the shadows of the surrounding skyscrapers, it is hard to conjure what had once been: signs adorned in sinuous Arabic script; stores and local peddlers selling eastern trinkets; coffee houses, restaurants, bakeries and pastry shops filling the air with cardamom, cumin and cinnamon. A place where a vibrant press published several Arabic language newspapers, and a rich Arab-American literary heritage flourished.

Marian Sahadi, who was in attendance at the unveiling of the plaques, still remembers it vividly, recounting how owners of pastry shops would give her little spoons of Syrian ice cream when she came in with her mother. When she was 6, she moved with her family to Brooklyn, to where the community relocated.

While Save Washington Street’s efforts have so far have been unsuccessful, Fine, Antoun and the activists working with them are hopeful a new mayor will bring better news.

Joe Svehlak, a New York City historian and tour guide whose Moravian ancestors immigrated to the neighborhood in 1912, has been one of its most vocal advocates.

“We’re hoping we finally get a landmarks commissioner who has a background in preservation or architecture, who understands or is more sensitive to the history signified in the built environment,” he said after the unveiling.

The recognition efforts do have the support of Community Board 1, and Chairwoman Catherine McVay Hughes joined in the celebration at the re-dedication. She also sees a silver lining in the damage Sandy brought to her area.

“Sometimes it takes an unwelcome outside visitor,” she said, “to galvanize a community.”

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