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Arab-American Community Unites in Letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission Regarding Washington Street

By Posted in - What's Happening Now? - News And Updates on May 21st, 2012 0 Comments

Several days ago, as we were preparing once again to forward our group letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and its Chairman Robert Tierney regarding the threatened buildings at 105-107 and 109 Washington Street, one of the strongest leaders of the Arab-American community in the United States said to us:

“[Y]ou have unified our community. To see all of these organizations signing together is awesome to say the least. That in itself is a miracle!”

And, with thanks to all of the signatories, I think we can say that this effort has indeed created an extraordinary coalition, something that was extremely necessary in the face of the crisis of the possible destruction of this core location in Arab-American life and history. The challenges of the last decade have often strained this community’s unity and made wide coalitions difficult, but in this attempt to save the last traces of Arab-American identity in Manhattan, the issues at stake have unified the major national Arab-American and Syrian-Lebanese organizations, the leading Christians bishops of multiple denominations, key cultural institutions, and prominent Arab-Americans of all religious backgrounds (including a beloved Queen whose family once lived in the New York of the Washington Street era).

The coalition is also joined by leading preservationists and architectural historians, and, with this level of support, no one can fairly argue that our request, simply to have an hearing on these important buildings (the last tenement on Washington Street and the Colonial Revival-style Community Center), is unreasonable.

Now is the time for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chairman Robert Tierney to show some respect to the thousands of Arab-Americans who have called, written letters, and signed petitions asking the City of New York to simply hold a hearing on these buildings. This problem is not going away, and future generations will be horrified if we do not act. While many other comparable ethnic neighborhoods in the city have dozens of landmarked buildings, it is absurd that the Arab-American community has had to fight to preserve the final three buildings in a neighborhood that was already largely demolished by two massive eminent domain actions.

Below is the most recent letter, and we urge the Landmarks Preservation Commission to allow a simple hearing before this problem escalates and admirers become more desperate. Alongside the article in The New York Times, this preservation crisis is attracting growing attention in the Middle East (al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, as-Safir, etc.) and in Europe and Latin America (BBC, Televisa, and others), and it is becoming an international embarrassment for the United States and New York City at a time when showing appreciation for Arab-American history and culture can help bridge differences.

May 21, 2012
Chairman Robert Tierney
Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor North
New York, NY 10007

Dear Chairman Robert Tierney,

The neighborhood of the Lower West Side along Washington Street in Lower Manhattan, also known as “Bowling Green Village,” “Little Syria,” or the “Mother Colony,” is crucial to the heritage of a vast array of American ethnic groups, and in 1925 Governor Al Smith laid the cornerstone of a handsome Colonial Revival-style community house at 105-107 Washington Street that would serve its collection of at least sixteen nationalities, including Lebanese, Syrians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Irish. Today, including St. George’s Melkite Church, the complex of three buildings at 103-109 Washington Street – the church, community house, and tenement – is the last trace of the large and vibrant ethnic community, part of the original New York and dramatically changed by the creation of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center, and by the continued high-rise construction in the last ten years, which has eliminated several other buildings leaving only these three remaining. As American ethnic groups rediscover their heritage in this area, which for a time was obscured by a lack of collective memory due to changes in immigration law, preservation of the last sign of community life in the Lower West Side becomes an important consideration for posterity.

Because of this important perceived historical value, on June 9, 2011, the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 1 voted unanimously to request that the Landmarks Preservation Commission designate the community house. The building, with its considerable architectural merit and importance in ethnic memory, indeed deserves Landmark designation. Its architect, John F. Jackson, was a noted designer of more than seventy YMCA buildings in the United States and Canada. 105-107 Washington Street, with its characteristic red brick façade, limestone base and trim, inset plaques with swag ornament, window lintels with projecting keystones, and mansard roof with dormers over a modillioned cornice, embodies the Colonial Revival style.

At the ceremony for 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.” The history of Little Syria is still largely unknown, and as the downtown area has transformed so completely unlike any other part of the city, it is critical for the memory of America’s diverse ethnic heritage to preserve the building which best symbolized the community and friendship between nationalities, particularly the Arab groups whose American story in connection with this area deserves especially to be told. And with the international media attention and online organizing the preservation need for this complex is receiving, many young Americans in particular are shocked that the contingencies of history have led to a failure to communicate this story and that the last signs of their heritage at this location are still in jeopardy.

It is a miracle that this trinity of buildings remains, and this trace of the most culturally rich location in the entire nation – the first stop as an immigrant would leave the Hudson docks in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty – offers perhaps the most important and valuable preservation case in downtown New York and the Lower West Side. In addition to the designation of 105-107, we request that the Commission explore the creation of a historical district of the three remaining buildings.

Carl Antoun
Director, Save Washington Street

Todd Fine
Director, Project Khalid

Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan

His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan Philip
Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of All North America

Norah Arafeh
Outreach Director, Save Washington Street

Andrew S. Dolkart, PhD
Director, Historic Preservation Program, Columbia University

Anan Ameri
Director, Arab American National Museum

Abdeen Jabara
Civil Rights Attorney

Rima Fakih
Miss USA 2010

Albert Johary
President, National Federation Of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs

Steve Zeitlin
Executive Director, City Lore

Hassan Jaber
Executive Director, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services

Richard Khuzami
Dahdoo Productions, Inc.
(Community Board 1, Astoria/Long Island City)

Molly Garfinkel
Director, Place Matters

Nidal Isber, MD
President, New York Chapter, National Arab American Medical Association

Helen Samhan
Board Member, Arab American Institute

Michele Forzley
Attorney at Law

Sheryl Fiegel
Co-founder, Kahlil Gibran Centennial Foundation

Bishop Gregory John Mansour
Bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn

Bishop Nicholas Samra
Eparchial Bishop of Newton for the Melkites in the United States of America

Warren David
President, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Simeon Bankoff
Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

John Zogby
CEO, Zogby International

James Zogby
President, Arab American Institute

Rev. Msgr. James A. Root
Rector of Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral

Loubna Qutami
Executive Director, Arab Cultural and Community Center

George Cody, PhD
Executive Director, American Task Force for Lebanon

Linda Sarsour
Director, Arab American Association of New York

Sarab Al-Jijakli
National Board, Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP)

Sarah Gualtieri, PhD
Professor of History, University of Southern California

Lena Alhusseini
Executive Director, Arab American Family Support Center

Ruth Ann Skaff
Executive Director, The Order of St. John

Alia Malek
Author, A Country Called Amreeka: US History Retold Through Arab American Lives and NYC Resident

Hani Bawardi
Professor of History, University of Michigan-Dearborn

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