Little Syria, the forgotten Arab heritage of Manhattan

Many cultures have reinvented parts of their homeland in the new lands they now call home. People from the Middle East had Little Syria, a once thriving neighbourhood that has left its legacy in New York

Little Syria, the forgotten Arab heritage of Manhattan

World Bulletin / News Desk

A forgotten but a culturally diverse and vibrant neighbourhood played an important role in the development of  New York City borough of Manhattan from the late 1880s until the 1940s.

Little Syria was an area made up of ethnically diverse Arab-Americans who had arrived from arriving from the Ottoman territory known as Greater Syria, the approximate area of which included in present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, during the Great Migration from 1880 to 1924.

Also called the Syrian Quarter, it encompassed Washington Street from Battery Park to above Rector Street, which is in in present-day Tribeca.

For decades, starting in the 1880s, the enclave flourished, home to noted Arab writers Khalil Gibrani and Ameen Rihani. It was also home to the first Arabic language newspapers with the the Linotype typesetting machine adapted for Arabic print by the brothers Naoum and Salloum Mokarzel for their Al-Hoda newspaper (The Guidance), enabling significant growth of the Arabic media and journalism in the Middle East as well as in New York.

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, says Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Historical Society, an organization dedicated to preserving Little Syria's history and also a doctoral candidate in history at the City University of New York.

The neighborhood was a main center of New York’s first community of Middle Eastern immigrants with a mixture of  Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians as well as Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Irish. 

The Call of Allah in Little Syria

Today, evidence is coming to light that Muslims not only lived in Little Syria but worshiped there, too, in a mosque — or masjid — on Rector Street, between Greenwich and Washington Streets (just around the corner from St. George’s).

“Muslims are not a recent, foreign intrusion that should generate fear, but are an ever-present feature of the American — and specifically New York — fabric,” said Fine.

“Most Americans identify with iconic stories of ethnic immigration,” Mr. Fine said. “The Rector Street mosque in Little Syria offers an elegant way to show that Muslims also belong.”

A tantalizing description is found in the files of The New York Sun newspaper.

“While the voice of the muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer, is never heard in New York, nevertheless the Mohammedan form of worship is carried on here,” The Sun told its readers on Feb. 25, 1912.

The newspaper’s office was 16 blocks from a six-story building, the Oriental, at 17 Rector Street. “There is nothing about the building to indicate that here is a temple where gather those who believe in Allah and Mohammed,” The Sun said.

“In the Rector Street mesjed, the same ceremonies are prescribed for entrance as rule at mosques,” the newspaper said. “You have to remove your shoes and wash your arms, face and feet.” It was for men only. Extra services were held on Sundays for those whose work kept them from the Friday congregational prayer.

“The chapel consists of two rooms, soberly furnished,” The Sun said. “One of the rooms is the sanctuary and the other is the audience room. As the worshipers say their prayers standing, it often holds as many as from 75 to 100.”

However, on the feasts of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, which the newspaper called by their Turkish names, the crowd spilled into the imam’s private rooms.

She said the most convincing aspect of the 1912 article was a mention of Turkish students at Columbia being among the imam’s charges, implying that the masjid “really was a place of worship attracting people from other parts of the city.”

Given the imam’s affiliation with the Ottoman government, it is difficult to say where politics left off and worship began at 17 Rector Street — if such a distinction can even be made. It is also potentially misleading to assume that the “Turks” or “Syrians” described by writers 100 years ago, when the Ottoman Empire existed, correspond exactly to those nationalities today.

What happened to the masjid is unclear, though the building lasted until the mid-1950s, when it was torn down to expand a skyscraper at Rector and Greenwich Streets that is now the Greenwich Club Residences. Its site is marked by a Dunkin’ Donuts shop and the storefront law office of Jeffrey E. Levine. 

Muslims and Christians living side by side

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, says Fine.

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." 

"I think there's a sense that anything Arab is dangerous," said Todd Fine, co-founder of Save Washington Street. "It's important for children of Arab Americans who are facing discrimination to know that this location is the start of their heritage.

Take a tour of the photos that show Little Syria here.

Source: New York Times/Dnainfo/Arab American Museum/Save Washington Street

 

Last Mod: 03 Kasım 2016, 14:40
Add Comment