Posted by on November 02, 2011 in Blog

By Maha Neouchy

Ground Zero has occupied the attention of Americans for over a decade. But a little known fact about the site, which is now being brought to the attention of Americans everywhere, is that it was once home to one of the first Arab American neighborhoods in the U.S. From the 1870s to the 1940s, the Lower West Side in Lower Manhattan on Washington Street was once an Arab American community known as “Little Syria”, “The Mother Colony”, “Bowling Green Village”, or “The Syrian Quarter.” It ran from Battery Park through the current location of the 9/11 Memorial to Chambers Street, and housed at least 16 nationalities including Lebanese, Syrians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Irish.

Today only three buildings between 103 and 109 Washington Street remain to signify the ethnic history of the first Arab American community: St. George’s Melkite Church at 103, which was turned into an Irish bar for a number of years and has once again been vacated; the “Little Syria” Community House at 105-107, a colonial revival-style house inaugurated by Al Smith, the former Governor of New York; and a tenement building at 109, which still contains apartments. Todd Fine, an avid supporter of the preservation of these three buildings and the director of Project Khalid, a centennial campaign for The Book of Khalid, believes that “the reason Little Syria has been so destroyed and devastated without a second thought is that historically Arab Americans, unlike other ethnic groups, have not visibly asserted an interest in preserving their heritage in Manhattan.”

Mr. Fine also serves as the historical and strategic advisor for the “Save Washington Street” movement, a national coalition of organizations and individuals advocating the preservation of the church, community house, and tenement building. He emphasizes that this is a huge effort which will contribute to saving “the last traces of the neighborhood [and] it will be critical that many Arab-Americans across the country make their voices heard and demonstrate that they do indeed value this history." The coalition is hoping its efforts will garner support for the establishment of a “Little Syria”, an area that will preserve the Lower West Side’s early 20th century ethnic heritage.  The first step to achieving the coalition’s goals was taken on June 9, 2011 when the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 1 voted unanimously that the Landmarks Preservation Commission protect the “Little Syria” Community House at 105-107. If the Commission agrees to make the Community House a landmark, the building’s “considerable architectural merit and importance” will be able to live on in New York’s ethnic history forever. Carl Antoun, Director of the “Save Washington Street” movement, explains that “the Jewish people have The Lower East Side, the Italians have ‘Little Italy’ and the Chinese have ‘China Town’. They each have their own personal museum as well.”  Now it is time for Arab Americans to have their very own “Little Syria”, which will enable them to battle stigmas and stereotypes they have been dealing with since 2001.

The “Save Washington Street” movement already has the backing of figures like Anan Ameri, the Director of the Arab American National Museum, Rima Fakih, Miss USA 2010, and Warren David, the President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Now we need your help! The first step you can take is signing an online petition which already has over 100 signatures. In addition, Mr. Antoun is urging the public to send letters to:

Chairman Robert Tierney

Landmarks Preservation Commission

1 Centre Street, 9th Floor North

New York, NY 10007  

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