The throngs of tourists visiting the September 11 Memorial and Battery Park often pause to stop at a peculiar sight at 103 Washington Street: a skinny church-like structure with intricate terra-cotta that gives an outsized monumental impression. As they see the Irish flag proudly flying from its side, many can be heard remarking, "Hey, look! An Irish church!"
Yet, for those passionate about the history of the building and the street hosting it, the tourist interest can be maddening. There are no explanatory plaques or signs, but were they to peer a little closer at ground-level, behind the pipe which covers the building's cornerstone, they would see the etched words, "St. George's Syrian Church."
Indeed, thousands of Lower Manhattan visitors every day walk, quite obliviously, in historic Arab New York along the famous Washington Street, and the Irish flag flies because this ethnic neighborhood, once widely known by New Yorkers as "Little Syria," has been abandoned and mostly demolished, with its impressive Melkite church forced to be sold by the Catholic Archdiocese in the early 1980s to become the Irish pub known as Moran's (which served and sheltered the emergency responders after September 11, but closed last summer due to the constant high-rise construction in the neighborhood).
The majority of Arab-Americans are also sadly unaware that Washington Street represents the beginnings of their heritage in the United States, a vibrant home for flows of Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians starting in the 1870s. The immigration restrictions of the 1920s led the Arab immigrants -- who were mostly Christian and predominantly came from areas that today would be considered Lebanon -- to assimilate completely into American society without further replenishment, and the aggressive eminent domain actions of official Robert Moses during the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1940s demolished most physical traces, including dozens of tenements along lower Washington Street.
Yet, for the history lovers who still like to wander the narrow streets of the lower west side of Manhattan and imagine the diverse ethnic settlement once there, there remains a single complex of buildings to admire. These structures help us visualize the massive army of Arab peddlers that moved out from Washington Street to New York City and its suburbs, and the setting that inspired world-famous writers like Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani who transformed Arabic literature itself from their New York base.
Connected to the Melkite church are two other buildings -- 109 and 105-107 Washington Street -- which signify other core aspects of Little Syria: community, business, and home life. Within this miraculous "trinity" of three buildings, the last tenement at 109 Washington Street still stands and contains apartments, with its present occupation demonstrating the resilience of New Yorkers to continue to reside downtown through repeated transformations and catastrophe. The tenement hosted Arab businesses on its ground floor and above sheltered Austrian, Slovak, Irish, Hungarian, Russian, Lithuanian, Italian, Polish, Czech, German, and other immigrants.
The Downtown Community House at 105-107 Washington Street was inaugurated by the New York governor and the city mayor to provide services for the poor neighborhood, and the large parade of nationalities that occurred at the dedication of its cornerstone demonstrated the sheer diversity of the ethnic groups that lived in the area, which bordered the financial district and received a great deal of social support from the Wall Street elite (who once had a special interest in supporting the Arab community and culture for religious reasons!). The building's "Colonial Revival" architecture consciously connects the immigrant recipients of its social services to the foundational settlers of North America, and, on this unique architectural basis, leading historic preservationists in New York City have been calling for the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the structure as a landmark for nearly a decade.
Yet, even on the day of the laying of the cornerstone, New York Governor Al Smith stated "there are few people in the City of New York today that realize really the number of people who live in this section of the city. The west side to most people appears principally as a place of business... and to say that there are so many tenement dwellings in the very shade and the very shadow of the great tall buildings that make New York's famous skyline is only to those familiar with it very apparent." Sadly, this lack of awareness still threatens what little remains.
Finally, as the result of a campaign called "Save Washington Street" now nearly all of the major national Arab-American organization and churches, along with a number of prominent historic preservationists in New York City, have signed a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and its Chairman Robert Tierney encouraging the designation of the tenement and the community house as a part of a mini-historical district for Little Syria. Given the massive impulse for development in Lower Manhattan, while the church is protected by landmark status, the other buildings remain under enormous threat.
The proximity of these structures to Ground Zero should be an afterthought in this discussion, and we want to avoid politicizing the petition. While some might argue that preservation of the buildings would serve to educate American and other tourists about the long-standing role of Arabs in American society (in the wake of the Sikh massacre, do ethnic groups need to be more assertive in telling their stories?), designation should be approved mostly because of the sheer importance of Little Syria in American history and the principle of equivalence in designating buildings important to ethnic memory, especially given the near-total destruction of this neighborhood by Robert Moses decades before the World Trade Center was built. Who would say, for instance, that we should demolish the last tenement in Little Italy or on the Lower East Side?
This recent report by Kate Reggev, commissioned by the campaign, builds an architectural case for the designation of the Downtown Community House, and the argument only strengthens as more preservationists look at the situation and offer their support. Especially given the growing attention and shock this dilemma is receiving in the Arab world and its media (with documentary programs on the leading satellite networks), Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chairman Robert Tierney should direct, at the very least, a simple hearing on the designation of these buildings to take place.
The preservation of Little Syria, with its ties to world-famous writers supported by appropriate signage, could eventually anchor another important tourist attraction in Lower Manhattan and would demonstrate abiding respect for New York City's diverse cultural and architectural history.
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