Once upon a time in New York City, years before the World Trade Centre was built and the area known as TriBeCa came to exist, the lower west side of Manhattan was a different place. For this corner of the city was once home to a vibrant neighbourhood, the streets filled with the sound of Arab music, the smell of fresh Baklava wafting from bakeries, shops brimming with everything from rugs to brass lanterns, veiled mothers watching their children playing and the newspapers and shop signs were written in Arabic. Little Syria, as it was known, was the cultural hub of America’s first middle eastern immigrant community and it was located just south of where the current World Trade Centre stands today.
For 60 years between 1880 until the 1940s, Arab-Americans poured into New York City from Greater Syria made up of present-day countries including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel to escape religious persecution and poverty. They found homes in crowded tenements on a six block stretch of Washington Street from Liberty Street to Battery Park, alongside Armenians, Greeks, and other communities from the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
According to an 1899 article from The New York Times digital archive about the Syrian Quarter and its 3,000 residents, the newly arrived immigrants made a home for themselves in this “tousled unwashed section of New York”.
“Turks, Armenians, Syrians, when they ship for America, do not leave all their quaint customs, garments, ways of thinking at home. Nor do they become ordinary American citizens directly after landing. Just enough of their traits, dress, ideas remain, no matter how long they have been here, to give the colonies they form spice and a touch of novelty.”
Many of the early Syrian-Americans began their new lives as street vendors before saving up to establish their own businesses. According to the New York Public Library, over 300 Syrian businesses were listed in the 1908 Syrian Business Directory of New York.
In chapter 14 of a book published in 1906, The life stories of undistinguished Americans as told by themselves, a young Syrian gives his account on his new community…
“The little Syrian city which we have established within the big city of New York has its distinctive life and its distinctive institutions… It has six newspapers printed in Arabic, one of them a daily; it has six churches conducted by Syrian priests, and many stores, whose signs, wares, and owners are all Syrian.”
“When we first came we expected to return to Syria, but this country is very attractive and we have stayed until we have put out roots. Two-thirds of our men now are American citizens, and the others are fast progressing along the same lines … Still we feel friendship for the old country and a desire to secure her welfare and especially her freedom.”
Little Syria declined as a neighbourhood as the inhabitants became wealthier and gradually dispersed to other areas, and had disappeared almost entirely by the 1940s when the remaining community was displaced by the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. If you go looking for the neighbourhood today, you’ll find just three buildings from the era: St. George’s Melkite Church, a tenement building at 109 Washington Street and the Downtown Community House.
Traveller tip: The heritage of this lost enclave is celebrated in a special exhibition at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum called Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy, until January 2017.