As President Trump moved to ban Syrian refugees from the United States, New Yorkers moved ahead with plans to memorialize Little Syria in lower Manhattan.
A panel convened by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs on Jan. 25 approved designs for public artwork which will adorn a new park a few blocks from the southern tip of Manhattan. The winning design from French-Moroccan artist Sara Ouhaddou will commemorate Arab-American writers through artistic representations of Arabic script strewn throughout the park, according to Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Historical Society, which is backing the memorial effort.
“This pattern of Arabic letters combined with Islamic geometry will be spread throughout the flat surfaces of the park,” he said in an email. “In the center, she proposes a pavilion with stained glass that creates a light effect.”
An optimistic timeline for completion of the memorial is the end of 2018, he confirmed in an interview. The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation will fund the nuts and bolts elements of the new 20,000-square-foot Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza. Additional fundraising will be necessary to pay for the memorial to Little Syria, according to Fine.
The community began to form in the late 19th century as immigrants from what is now Syria and Lebanon arrived in downtown Manhattan. A vibrant literature scene arose in the area around Washington Street among immigrants who could express themselves freely in a way they were unable to under the Ottoman sultanate.
Roger Allen, a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview that an important consideration for him in casting his vote was how a memorial would recognize how writers such as Kahlil Gibran, Mikhail Naimy, Elia Abu Madi, ‘Afifa Karam, and Ameen Rihani changed the game when it came to Arabic poetry. They abandoned the strict meters of traditional poetry for the style and freedom of American poets like Walt Whitman.
In doing so, these Little Syria poets contributed to the democratization of American poetry through their NYC-based Mahjar school of literature, according to Allen. This history is little-known and requires a one-of-a-kind presentation considering new threats from Trump of discrimination against Muslims, according to Allen.
“I wanted somebody to go away (after seeing the memorial) and think about not only the literary tradition of the Arabs but also the presence of a literary tradition of the Arabs in the United States. The process of immigration, the process of integration (are) very important right now, particularly today,” Allen said. “They were here. They are here and they deserve to be here.”
By the early 20th century, Little Syria had become a vibrant center of Arab-American life with journalists, poets and cultural figures whose influence stretched across the Arab diaspora and to the Middle East after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. But by the middle of the 20th century the construction of the Battery Tunnel destroyed much of the community. The later construction of the World Trade Center later supplanted much of what was left of Little Syria.
The final design of the memorial could change from the idea approved on Jan. 25 at the panel meeting, held at downtown’s Metropolitan College.
But however a memorial eventually materializes, it has already awakened some longtime New Yorkers not only to local history but also their place within it. Midtown resident Alex Khanji said the idea for a memorial to Little Syria surprised him – especially since he once lived on nearby Rector Street after immigrating to the U.S. in 1969.
“I’m Syrian and I didn’t even know it existed.”
Zach Williams is a 2016 graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Watch his 360˚ video report on Little Syria below.