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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