Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Blog

By: Alexander Matika

Summer 2013 Intern

“Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets…” - From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

On a dusty morning in 2002, during the early stages of the 9/11 recovery operation, rescue workers miraculously discovered a church cornerstone among the ruins of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Dating to the beginning of the 20th century, the stone was from St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, originally on Washington Street in lower Manhattan, then relocated a few blocks to the northeast to Cedar Street.

Resting near the docks on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, St. Joseph’s was once a vibrant, energetic ground for communal gathering and worship, particularly for new Arab immigrants. Beginning in the 1870’s, immigrants, mostly Christians from the Ottoman region of Greater Syria, including present-day Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, began arriving in New York, lured by the promise of wealth in America and deteriorating economic conditions at home. The wharves and markets of Washington Street offered a path to prosperity for the budding community, which by the turn of the 20thcentury came to be known by the Americanism, “Little Syria”.   

Several years ago, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center integrated the history of life in the surrounding area, including references to the immediate neighborhood (the northern part of Little Syria was devastated by 1960’s WTC construction), along with various objects found in the rubble. However, the CEO and Director of the Memorial, Joe Daniels and Alice Greenwald respectively, opted to omit any reference of the ‘first’ Arab American neighborhood or St. Joseph’s. Meanwhile, the Bishop of the Maronite Church in the Eastern United States, Gregory Mansour, has offered to allow the Museum to display the cornerstone of St. Joseph’s so long as the “vibrant life of the congregation and community is also shown and noted.” Todd Fine and Carl Antoun Houck, co-directors of the Save Washington Street coalition, stated in a May 17, 2013 letter addressing Mr. Daniels and Ms. Greenwald, “that the absence of any mention of ‘Little Syria’ could be seen as discriminatory and as a lost opportunity to communicate essential, sustaining values of New York City and the United States. This inclusion is especially important for Arab-American children, who have had to face severe stresses and identity issues since September 11.”

Fine and Houck’s message was echoed four days later by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, advocating for the preservation of cultural heritage. The ADC letter, endorsed by figures such as former Ambassador of the League of Arab States at the United Nations Clovis Maksoud, and Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, called on the Museum to encompass “the full, rich history of the area including Arabs and Arab Americans who have experienced marginalization after September 11.”

In fact, the 9/11 Tribute Center, a non-profit dedicated to the families, survivors, residents, rescue workers and volunteers affected by September 11, held a presentation in cooperation with the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan on April 30, 2013 entitled, “Little Syria: Lower Manhattan Before the World Trade Center.”

Furthermore, the neighborhood’s world-renowned residents, including writers Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani, committed their lives to the development of mutual and cross-cultural understanding between the United States and Arab world. According to a 2011 interview in The Wall Street Journal with Mr. Fine, the two authors are credited with the “introduction of American political thinking on freedom, democracy and revolution into Arab intellectual discourse.” Championing religious plurality and believing the destiny of the Arab world was freedom and friendship with America, even the ideologies of Little Syria’s inhabitants aid in the establishment of a just, inclusive and respectful memorial to the lost.

All are encouraged to view the following resources as well as other posts on the Arab American Institute blog for more information. 

Finally, please help save the last vestiges of an original and once-thriving Arab American community by sending letters to the address below, advocating for the labeling and recognition of “Little Syria” as an official Historic District:

Chairman Robert Tierney
Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor North New York, NY 10007  

comments powered by Disqus