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Discovering New York’s Little Syria

BEIRUT | CGNews - May 03, 2012, 15h35
Par Nada Akl
Photo from website
While the Arab world is sometimes characterised as the opposite of the West in general, and of the United States in particular, it is important to remember that Arab Americans have a long and rich history in the United States. Like many other immigrant communities, their journey to a new home contributed to making the United States the country it is today.
According to the 2008 American Community Survey, there are over 1.5 million Arab Americans, accounting for approximately 0.5 per cent of the American population. They come from various Arab countries and consider themselves a diverse group with rich cultures. Consider some Americans of Arab descent who have contributed a great deal to the United States: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, 2010 Miss USA winner Rima Fakih, former presidential candidate Ralph Nader and comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

A group of New Yorkers is fighting to preserve the legacy of early Arab immigrants by raising awareness about the vibrant past of Washington Street. It is in the neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan, along Washington Street, where you can find what was once known as “Little Syria”. It was previously the centre of Arab American life in the United States and where the Arab American community, made up of Christians, Muslims and Jews, lived in the 19th century.

The area, also known as the “Mother Colony”, was home to several churches, shops selling Middle Eastern goods and Lebanese and Syrian restaurants. If you were to have visited during its 19th century heyday, you would have smelled the strong aroma of Arabic coffee and spotted many men wearing the traditional red fez. It was a hub for peddlers and prosperous businesses as well as a centre of intellectual life where you could find prominent Arab American writers like Ameen Rihani, Khalil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy.

As subsequent generations spread across the country and integrated, Little Syria was slowly forgotten. By the end of the 20th century, the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center was the impetus for the demolition of most of the buildings associated with the early wave of Arab immigrants. Only three buildings from the street’s lively past remain today: 103 Washington Street, formerly Saint George’s Melkite Church; 105-107 Washington Street, once a community centre inaugurated by the governor of New York to serve the Little Syria neighbourhood; and 109 Washington Street, a tenement building still containing apartments.

Save Washington Street is an initiative to preserve these landmarks and raise awareness about the street’s past, recognising the legacy of the tens of thousands of immigrants who passed through it. The two individuals behind this initiative are Carl Antoun, an American of Lebanese descent whose own family spent time on that street and ran a successful business there; and Todd Fine, a Harvard graduate who for the last seven years has been raising awareness of Lebanese American author Ameen Rihani and his important contribution to early Arab-American relations.

The organisers’ current goals are to continue raising awareness of the project and to get landmark status for the buildings. They are also looking for a buyer to acquire the buildings and eventually convert them into a museum. In addition, there are plans to erect a memorial statue to Ameen Rihani in Lower Manhattan and to put a plaque at the location of his former home on Washington Street.

Save Washington Street has received support from local politicians and people around the world who appreciate Arab culture. “We have been here just as long as every other ethnic group”, Antoun explains. “New York City is the most important city in the world for these things. The amount of cultures, stories, and languages we have here is remarkable. The early Arabic speaking immigrants deserve to be remembered and honoured just [like] every other ethnic group.”

Nada Akl is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. You can find out more about Washington Street at
#Syria, #Little_Syria, #ArabAmerican
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