Before Park51: Arab Americans in New York’s Little Syria

A couple of months ago, the N.Y. Times ran an article, titled When an Arab Enclave Thrived Downtown, that briefly explored the history of the Arab American community in lower Manhattan. That’s right, long before 9/11 and the Park51 Community Center a vibrant community of Arab Americans inhabited lower Manhattan. This was the neighborhood of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, Al-Hoda newspaper, and the original A. Sahadi & Co. store. Unfortunately, the history of this community has largely been forgotten. After all, “(t)here are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”

The Arab American community that settled along Washington Street in the lower west side immigrated from what was Greater Syria (present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Jordan) between 1870 and 1920. Predominately Christian, these Arab Americans settled “in the shadow of where the World Trade Center would be put up a century later.” In 2002, the Museum of the City of New York hosted the exhibition A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York. Originally scheduled to open in November 2001, the exhibited was postponed due to the tragic events of 9/11. I commend the museum for its diligence in rescheduling the show and for publishing an important book documenting the history of the community. To the best of my knowledge, this has been the only public display of information on Little Syria within New York City.

To raise greater awareness of the history of Arab Americans in lower Manhattan, we are hoping to organize a photographic exhibit on the community. Right now the exhibit is very much in the earliest stages of development. At this time we are conducting research to identify images that best show the history of the Little Syria neighborhood. Fortunately, scattered archival collections contain important information on this early Arab American community. So far, I’ve managed to identify a handful of images that could potentially end up in the exhibit. Here are a few of them:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ62-37780] George Grantham Bain Collection

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ62-71330] George Grantham Bain Collection

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-ggbain-22817] George Grantham Bain Collection

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ6-1774] George Grantham Bain Collection

I suspect that this exhibit will be an excellent vehicle for dispelling stereotypes and for providing accurate information on the history and contributions of New York’s earliest Arab American community. With the current debate on Park51, coupled with the tone and spiteful rhetoric being used by certain politicians, the need for this exhibit is apparent. As the Times’ journalist suggests, “…it is worth recalling the old sights and sounds and smells of Washington Street as a reminder that in New York — a city as densely layered as baklava — no one has a definitive claim on any part of town, and history can turn up some unexpected people in surprising places.”

Here are some interesting articles I’ve found via the N.Y. Times online archive:

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Archiving the Web: What is the Role of Our Museum?

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a small meeting at the Library of Congress that focused on the curatorial challenges of archiving citizen journalism. The two-day meeting, titled Citizen Journalists and Community News: Archiving for Today and Tomorrow, was hosted by the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP). The primary goals of the meeting were: 1.) to identify the long-term value of new forms of journalism, and 2.) to identify the appropriate roles and responsibilities of libraries and archives with respect to preservation and access of the materials. I had the honor of being the sole representative from the museum community to participate in the convening. I found the meeting to be both insightful and relevant to our work at the AANM. I was asked to deliver a short presentation on our museum’s collections plan and policy, as well as our interest in web archiving and preserving digital content. If you’re interested in learning more about the meeting, then head over to Dan Gilmore’s article on for further information.

To prepare for the meeting, I spent some quality time reflecting on our institution’s collecting initiatives. We are unique in that our institution is the only museum dedicated to documenting and preserving Arab American history. We recognize the large and growing demand for accurate and reliable information on our community. Speaking to this, we strive to become the primary source for providing this information to the public. To achieve this goal, we are reassessing our collecting priorities and focusing greater attention on primary source materials and historical records.

We are just now beginning to think about the various web-based, born-digital resources that are relevant to building community history and collective memory. These historical records exist in various forms: digital photographs and videos, social media, blogs, citizen journalism websites, organizational websites, e-newsletters, political campaign websites, etc. In the future, these digital resources will be vital to understanding the Arab American community. For example, this year an estimated twenty-seven Arab Americans ran for political office. Each had a website that was rich with information on the candidate (it’s startling how much campaigning actually takes place online). We know that these websites have a specific function and are built to last for a finite period of time. If we do not work to preserve the content, the information is potentially lost forever. As Gilmore states in his article, “We need better ways to save the media we’re all creating, for our kids and for the historians of tomorrow.”

As an institution, we need to identify how web archiving fits into our collections plan and policy. Furthermore, we need to foster new partnerships with other collecting institutions to achieve our goals. I suspect the LoC is one potential partner. Additionally, I think there are some advantages to working in collaboration with the Internet Archive (its Archive-It subscription service might be a good fit).

I’m optimistic about the role our institution can play in ensuring that our ethnic community’s digital footprint is documented and preserved. We have learned that we are responsible for collecting and documenting Arab American history; if we don’t do it, no one else will. Sadly, this information will not only be lost forever, but most likely excluded from the larger American historical narrative. Speaking to this, I look forward to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

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Interview on Radio Tahrir Regarding Our #Kickstarter Project

Earlier this evening I was interviewed by Radio Tahrir, a one-hour long talk radio program hosted on Pacifica Radio, WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City. Radio Tahrir is a weekly radio magazine that focuses on documenting and presenting issues and topics that affect Arab and Muslim communities in the US. As part of tonight’s show, I was asked to explain the Museum’s current Kickstarter fundraiser campaign. Here is the interview:


This project has garnered a fair deal of attention from the media, as articles and interviews have been featured in both local and national journalism outlets. We are now on the final leg of the project. There are 17 remaining days in the campaign. Overall, we are pleased with the way the project is progressing. I will reflect on Kickstarter in greater detail at the end of the campaign.

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Guest Blogger On Metromode (Part 2)

The second post in my two-part series as a guest blogger for Metromode was published this morning. The article is titled Striving to be a National Institution.

What does it mean to be a national museum? Whose stories do we reflect? What do we aspire to be? These are all common questions that I receive when people first learn about the Arab American National Museum (AANM). Understandably, the word “national” in the title can be a bit ambiguous. However, when understood in the context of the Museum’s history and its operations, things become much clearer. Read more…

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Guest Blogger On Metromode

I was recently asked to be a guest blogger on, a Website that “posts daily reports on job growth and development in Southeast Michigan.” I’m a fan of both Metromode and its sister publication, Model D, so agreeing to write a few short articles on the Arab American National Museum was a no-brainer. In my blog posts I will discuss the Museum’s history and its place in the community; its multicultural programming; and its goal of becoming a vibrant, nationally respected institution. The first post, Arab American National Museum is 1 in 17,000, was published today.

Founded on May 5, 2005, the Arab American National Museum (AANM) will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary. People are often curious about the Museum’s origins and its location. Although the Museum is still very much a startup, its roots extend back to the late 1980s. In fact, the AANM is a part of the Dearborn-based Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). In 1987 the agency developed a cultural arts department to educate the public on Arab American culture and to provide affordable and accessible arts programming. Today, the AANM is an extension of this program and it remains a vibrant department within ACCESS. Although it is very uncommon for a museum to be part of a social service agency, ACCESS considers the arts to be just one part of a multi-component approach to providing comprehensive services for living an enriched and fulfilling life. Read more…

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Socially Awkward: Learning to Navigate Web and Social Technologies (#CASM Presentation)

The past few days have been incredibly hectic. I returned early this morning from three days of work in Washington, D.C. A colleague and I met with museums, government agencies, and members from the Arab American community to discuss new educational opportunities and a forthcoming exhibit we are developing. I departed Washington, D.C. at 3:30 a.m. to drive to Baltimore for a flight home to Detroit. My brain and body are recovering from this whirlwind trip.

Upon arriving back in Michigan, I participated in a panel presentation at the Cultural Alliance of Southeastern Michigan (CASM) 2010 Annual Meeting. The presentation, entitled Socially Awkward: Learning to Navigate Web and Social Technologies, focused on the Arab American National Museum’s approach to using social technologies and raising unrestricted funds online. We were pressed for time, so there was no opportunity for questions and answers at the end. If you’ve arrived here as a result of the presentation, please do leave a comment or question, or feel free to drop me a message vial email. Thanks for stopping by!

Devon Akmon

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