Arab history erased in New York and Beirut

Which parts of the past are worth preserving?

By Nicholas Nehamas

Everyday, thousands of tourists visit the World Trade Center memorial in Lower Manhattan. Little do they know they’re walking through what once was the first Arab-American neighborhood in the United States.

“Little Syria” was a thriving part of New York City from the 1880s until the 1940s, when controversial city planner Robert Moses claimed much of it for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. In the 1960s, another chunk of it was demolished to make way for the World Trade Center.

Now, the constant cycle of redevelopment in the area threatens two of Little Syria’s last remaining buildings.

St. George’s Church is the only site in Little Syria with landmark status. (Save Washington Street)

One of them, a five-story tenement building at 109 Washington Street, a stone’s throw from Wall Street, first welcomed Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in the 1880’s. But the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission doesn’t believe the building is worth saving. In an e-mail to Latitude News, a commission spokeswoman wrote that the site “lacks architectural and historical significance.”

Others disagree. “Who would say that we should destroy the last tenement in Little Italy or Chinatown or the Lower East Side?” said Todd Fine, an organizer with Save Washington Street.

Esther Regelson has lived in the Washington Street tenement for 27 years. She says that, over time, developers have ripped down the neighborhood’s beautiful apartment buildings and stores to make way for faceless 50-story behemoths with no character or architectural sensibility.

“The history of this neighborhood is all that’s left,” she said. “But it’s all being erased at this rapid clip now. We’re losing every bit, not just Little Syria, but all of Lower Manhattan too. Bit by bit, it’s getting chewed away.”

The commission also denied landmark status to a six-story Syrian-American community center that opened in a 1925 ceremony important enough to draw New York’s governor. St. George’s Church, which is down the street from the center, however, was granted protected status in 2009. The city argues the Maronite church is enough to preserve the character of Little Syria, even though the community was a mix of Christians, Druzes, Jews and Muslims.

Pink Stone Realty, which owns the community center, says it has no plans to tear it down. But the company is constructing a high-rise down the street and without landmark status, says Fine, there’s no guarantee the tenement or community center will remain standing.

Like New York, like Beirut

The Little Syria controversy has parallels in Lebanon. In Beirut, The Daily Star reports that an ancient Phoenician port was bulldozed to make way for a $500 million project. On June 28th, Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun allowed the port to be razed, reversing an order by his predecessor, who had blocked construction of three skyscrapers on the site last year.

The Venus construction firm that owns the land claims the ruins are not Phoenician, but date from a later era.

Activists, historians and archaeologists were not happy. They say Layyoun and Venus acted improperly — if not illegally — and that the site was worthy of preservation and further study, no matter when it dated from.

Hisham Sayegh, who led excavations at the port, resigned after the site was destroyed. He recently published a letter claiming Venus offered him bribes.

“A sense of history, maybe it’s lacking in Lebanon today,” said Gregory Orfalea, an English professor at Westmont College, in an interview with Latitude News. “That’s what we need to overcome. Our whole ‘present-is-everything’ culture is bad at recognizing the importance of history and its lessons.”

Is Little Syria worth saving?

Orfalea, who has written extensively on Arab-American history, agrees that in New York and Beirut “there’s a double story of history being muffled and going unrecognized.”

“Little Syria remains an untold story,” he said. “The whole history of our community is, to some extent. Although we’re doing better now. But on Washington Street there’s not much that represents it.”

He’d like to see a small museum in the community center and perhaps a monument on the street.

Photo of a street sign for a financial firm in Little Syria dating from the late 1890s. (Save Washington Street)

Little Syria was once the the center of the silk trade in New York, reflecting the traditional specialty of Lebanese and Syrian merchants. Those merchants came to America after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, undercutting their role as middlemen in the silk trade. The canal allowed European silk traders to bypass the Middle East in shipping Chinese silk to the west.

The Syrian and Lebanese immigrants’ push-carts filled with clothes and other goods became a common sight on Manhattan’s streets.

“Americans have these stereotypes of the Arab world,” said Fine of Save Washington Street. “They don’t realize Arabs have been down here for 140 years.”

Little Syria was also the birthplace of two well-known literary works, The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. The latter has been translated into more than fifty languages and has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1926.

Orfalea says designating another landmark for Little Syria would be a good thing for America. “It can’t help but give Arabs a sense of pride and a stake in the story of our American history,” he said. Because the stigma of the September 11th attacks continue to affect Arab-Americans, Orfalea says, “The better side of America asks we go out of our way to show these people that they belong.”

You can view photographs of Little Syria as it used to be here.