Forgotten Washington Street
Washington Street is an extraordinary location in the history of immigration and ethnic life in the United States. This one thoroughfare in Lower Manhattan, in the midst of the financial district, contained an extremely diverse microcosm of immigration from all corners of the world, especially, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from the Ottoman Empire. This unique street sheltered Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Irish. Because of the heavy Lebanese and Arab population (many of the Syrians came from areas we would label Lebanon today, Mount Lebanon in particular), it was often referred to as “The Mother Colony,” the “Syrian Quarter,” or “Little Syria.” There were also Syrians from Aleppo and a concentration of Muslims from Palestine who occupied the northern part of Washington Street. However, the entire street and neighborhood, growing from the Arabs in 1870, was the “Mother Colony” for their presence in the United States.
For visitors, Washington Street was strikingly different and unique. A strong aroma of Arabic coffee was supplemented by sights of red fez hats, tastes of sweet pastries, and sounds of the Arabic language. In this age, many Americans were fascinated by Arab culture, and many traveled to the Holy Land, or the Levant, in order to “walk the land that Jesus once walked.” Washington Street contained Lebanese-Syrian restaurants, shops with Middle Eastern products, and several churches.
The characteristic professions for those living in the neighborhood were peddling fruit, clothing, religious objects, and drinks through the streets of the city; working in factories making textiles among other products (matching Lebanon’s long history in silk production); or building businesses, importing and exporting goods around the world. These modern day “Phoenicians” dealt with dry goods, textiles, notions, jewelry, laces, linen, and even cocoa. The most successful businessmen of the neighborhood lived in nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Brooklyn Heights and Atlantic Avenue and would travel to and from Washington Street via the South Street Ferry. Washington Street also had a major impact on global culture. The linotype typesetting machine was adapted for the Arabic newspaper by the brothers Naoum and Salloum Mokarzel for their Al-Huda newspaper (The Guidance), enabling enormous growth of the Arabic media and journalism especially in the Middle East. Moreover, many important Arab writers, including Ameen Rihani, Khalil Gibran, and Mikhail Naimy, lived or were active in this neighborhood. They founded a group called “Pen League,” which had an extremely innovative impact on Arabic literature and introduced Western literary ideas.
Yet, by the third generation, the Lebanese and Syrian Americans were fully integrated and assimilated into the American way of life, and many spread throughout the country. In New York, people gradually started moving out of Washington Street to neighborhoods in Brooklyn Heights and Atlantic Avenue, and, with changes in American immigration law in the early 1920s, fewer newer immigrants were there to replenish the immigrant cohort and the authenticity of Washington Street. Eventually, Washington Street would be almost fully erased from memory and visual references. By 1946, eviction notices were distributed to the residents of Washington Street for Robert Moses’s plans to construct the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and the later construction of the World Trade Center demolished much that remained.
Now only a sliver of three buildings remain, and, since they are under threat, we believe it is critical to preserve them so that some sense of the historical Washington Street will remain for posterity.
Daily News Story on National September 11 Museum and “Little Syria”
May 18, 2013
Today the New York Daily News posted this informative piece by Carol Kuruvilla about our efforts to preserve the neighborhood and to encourage the National September 11 Museum to include some recognition. We want to emphasize that we only went public with our frustrations after several years of local historians asking the Museum to incorporate [...]
Community Board One Resolution on “Little Syria” Historical Signage
May 16, 2013
On May 1, 2013, the Financial District Committee of Community Board One unanimously advanced the below resolution advocating signage for “Little Syria.” While not all members necessarily voted or were present, the committee includes Edward Sheffe, CHAIR; Susan Cole, CO-CHAIR; Deron Charkoudian; Linda Gerstman; Mariama James; Michael Ketring; Joel Kopel; Elizabeth Lamere; Megan McHugh; Patricia [...]
Wall Street Journal Piece on Little Syria (Jennifer Weiss)
March 26, 2013
This morning the Wall Street Journal has a wonderful print and video piece about our campaign to protect the remaining complex of three historic buildings on Washington Street in Little Syria. This is indeed an urgent situation, and we would ask that people contact the Landmarks Preservation Commission (Chairman Robert Tierney) and Mayor Bloomberg, asking [...]
Salaam Club in New York Hosts Holiday Hafleh To Benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
December 14, 2012
On Saturday, December 8, our friends at the Salaam Club of New York City hosted a holiday hafleh (the Arabic equivalent of “party”) to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the internationally-known pediatric treatment and research facility in Memphis, Tennessee. Some people may not realize that the hospital was founded by popular Lebanese-American entertainer Danny [...]
Walking Tour of Washington Street on November 10 (With Joe Svehlak and Esther Regelson)
November 6, 2012
During Hurricane Sandy, lower Washington Street was flooded to near waist-high levels. Power is still trickling back, and the basements of most buildings were flooded, leaving some damage. However, a few of the neighborhood’s great advocates — local historian Joe Svehlak and community activist Esther Regelson — are still going forward with a walking tour [...]