What's left of New York's Little Syria a short but rich tour
This picture taken Oct. 1, 2016, shows part of the Najjar family's passport, Syrian migrants who came to the United States in 1920 and is displayed at the "Little Syria, N.Y. An Immigrant Community's Life and Legacy" exhibit at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.(AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Jeff Karoub, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, October 19, 2016 2:18PM EDT
NEW YORK -- Visiting what remains of New York City's original "Little Syria" neighbourhood is a short tour that's long on fascinating, largely forgotten history.
"It's a bit tricky to do a walking tour when in some senses there's only one destination," said Todd Fine, leading a tour earlier this month to coincide with the opening of an exhibition, "Little Syria N.Y.: An Immigrant Community's Life and Legacy," at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.
Fine, president of the Washington Street Historical Society, says three buildings on Washington Street are "the last traces" of the neighbourhood that stretched several blocks from the foot of Manhattan north to where the World Trade Center was later built. It was a thriving Middle Eastern community bursting with people, produce sellers, publishers and more between the 1880s and 1940s.
Most of the neighbourhood was razed for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel but what remains -- bookended by a high-rise Holiday Inn and a lot that's expected to hold a 60-story skyscraper -- "tells a story," according to Fine.
"What you have are three aspects of life: church, home, community," he said.
Indeed, the historic row on Washington Street between Rector and Carlisle streets offers a representative sampling of the mostly vanished neighbourhood:
-- The former St. George's Syrian Catholic Church, now home to two restaurants, features a distinctive terra cotta facade. The building goes back to the early 1800s but the church operated there from the 1920s to the '40s. It's been an Irish tavern or gathering place at various points before and since, reflecting some of the area's inhabitants before the wave of Middle Easterners. The building has been protected as a city landmark, Fine said, though preservationists have been unsuccessful in efforts to secure similar protections for the rest of the row.
-- The middle building, now known as the Downtown Community House, is vacant but has served over the years as a settlement house for immigrants and recently a Buddhist temple -- as evidenced by the Buddhas adorning the Colonial Revival exterior.
-- The third building is described by Fine as "a typical tenement from the 1850s" -- the last left on a street once holding dozens. It still contains apartments, and one tenant of Greek descent had relatives who lived there during the days of "Little Syria."
The Middle Eastern merchants once packing Washington Street are gone, but over the Brooklyn Bridge there's a longtime transplant: Sahadi Importing Co., which moved in the late 1940s from Manhattan to Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue -- a parallel home and hub for Syrians and other Arabs -- and remains a popular gourmet grocery to this day. The family's Little Syria roots stretch back to the 1890s, when A. Sahadi & Co. opened.
One of Little Syria's other early merchants, Germack Pistachio Co., now operates in Detroit, close to a large, longstanding Middle Eastern community that grew alongside Little Syria.
Another Brooklyn site with links to Manhattan's Little Syria is Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Cathedral, a few blocks from Atlantic. The area's Maronite community dates back to 1890, when St. Joseph's church was established across the river.
St. Joseph's, whose congregation dwindled as many moved to Brooklyn and joined Our Lady of Lebanon, had to move twice -- first to make way for the tunnel and then later for development surrounding the World Trade Center. Church leaders moved the cornerstone from the first location to the second, and it was found in the rubble of the twin towers in 2002. The cornerstone now is displayed in Our Lady of Lebanon's lobby.
Back in Lower Manhattan, those looking for more about Little Syria can learn about the neighbourhood's literary legacy -- it was the headquarters for many writers, including famed poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran -- in Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza. Gibran's name and others are etched on bench plaques, and the city plans to construct a new park featuring a monument to honour that literary heritage. The park and monument should be completed by 2018.
For those interested in guided tours of the area, Fine said his group does them occasionally and by request. They also are announced on its website, http://www.savewashingtonstreet.org .
Of course, the deepest dive into the neighbourhood's history is just a ferry ride away to Ellis Island. The exhibit, created by the Dearborn, Michigan-based Arab American National Museum, runs through Jan. 9.