Before WTC, There was ‘Little Syria’

At the turn of the century, many Arab Americans populated “Little Syria,” an area that encompassed Washington Street in Lower Manhattan from down south, including what would be the World Trade Center decades later. An ongoing downtown exhibit displays pieces and remnants of the neighborhood, reports Terese Loeb Kreuzer for Downtown Express.

Syrian and Lebanese immigrant children on Washington Street in lower Manhattan’s “Little Syria.” (Photo via Wikipedia)

The cluster of tenements, shops, restaurants, churches and businesses once known as “Little Syria” because so many people from Syria and Lebanon settled there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, extended from the Battery to Liberty St. Now, only three buildings on Washington St. remain — a tenement, a community center and landmarked St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, which long ago was converted into a restaurant.

With photographs, music, a film and a few artifacts, a modest exhibit called “Little Syria, NY” at 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology, on 80 Greenwich St., recalls the old neighborhood. The exhibit was organized by the Arab American National Museum of Dearborn, Michigan and includes lectures and walking tours. It will be on display through May 27.

“Little Syria” started seeing its demise in the 1940s after the city took over much of the area through eminent domain with the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The final nail in the coffin came with the building of the World Trade Center in the 1960s, taking with it the last of the neighborhood. Dr. Robert Madey, now 80 and a retired physicist, recalls the literary culture teeming in the streets of “Little Syria.” His father, Elia Abu Madi (in the Arabic spelling) came from Lebanon in 1916 and was a renowned poet and journalist.

Dr. Robert Madey poses next to a photo of his father at the “Little Syria” exhibit. (Photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer via Downtown Express)

“He had an office on Washington St.  where he published his daily newspaper — ‘Al-Samir,’” Madey remembers. “He subsequently moved to Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn, where he published the paper until his death in 1957.”“Al-Samir” was one of several newspapers published in the Washington St. area. “A group of poets and journalists established The Pen League in 1920 to preserve the Arabic language in their new country,” Madey said. “There were around 18 members. Kahlil Gibran [poet, artist and writer] was the most prominent. The others were journalists.”

According to Madey, many Syrian and Lebanese immigrants came to the U.S. to escape the Ottoman Empire. “The majority of the immigrants in the time frame of this exhibit were Christian. The Muslim wave didn’t come until maybe the late 1960s.” The exhibit showcases more than just visuals, it tingles smell buds as well.

The smell of exotic spices wafting from open sacks and barrels no longer lingers on Washington St., but visitors to the exhibit at 3-Legged Dog can lift the lid of a box containing za’atar — a blend of oregano, thyme and savory — for a whiff of the past and can hear the music that once resounded in this neighborhood and if they want more, they can go to Atlantic Avenue where (among other Arab businesses) famed Sahadi’s, a grocery store established on Washington St. in 1898, still flourishes.

Visit Downtown Express for more details on the exhibit, as well as accompanying walking tours and other related events.

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