History of Little Syria

The Washington Street neighborhood is an extraordinary location in the history of immigration and ethnic life in the United States and New York City. This one thoroughfare and surrounding streets on the West Side of Lower Manhattan, next to 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. Among the groups in this compact area were Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Irish. Because of the heavy Syrian population (the largest proportion of the Syrians came from areas we would label Lebanon today, Mount Lebanon in particular) that began to coalesce in the 1880s, it was often referred to as “The Mother Colony,” the “Syrian Quarter,” or “Little Syria.” However, there were also Syrians from Aleppo and Damascus, as well as a later concentration of Muslims and Christians from Palestine. We also find the occasional Iraqi, Sudanese, or Jordanian.

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For visitors, Washington Street was strikingly different and unique among ethnic neighborhoods. The stereotypical differences were often remarked in New York newspapers. 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 era, 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 various 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 administering import-export businesses that traded goods around the world. Merchants dealt with dry goods, textiles, notions, jewelry, laces, linen, and even cocoa. Starting in the early 1900s, the most successful businessmen of “Little Syria” moved to nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights and Atlantic Avenue, and they 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 Arabic print by the brothers Naoum and Salloum Mokarzel for their Al-Huda newspaper (The Guidance), enabling significant growth of the Arabic media and journalism in the Middle East as well as in New York. Moreover, many important Arab writers, including Ameen Rihani, Khalil Gibran, and Mikhail Naimy, lived or were active in the neighborhood. In 1916, reestablished in 1920, they founded a group called “Pen League,” which had an extremely innovative impact on Arabic literature and introduced Western literary formats and ideas.

Faces Of The Lebanese/Syrian American Diaspora

By the third generation, Lebanese and Syrian Americans were fully integrated and assimilated into the American way of life, and many had spread throughout the country, through the Midwest, the South, and the West. However, most had a start of some kind in New York, even if that meant only a temporary stay at a boardinghouse. In New York, people gradually started moving out of Washington Street to these neighborhoods in Brooklyn Heights and Atlantic Avenue, and, with restrictive changes to American immigration law in the early 1920s, fewer newer immigrants arrived to replenish the immigrant cohort and maintain the authenticity of Washington Street. Highrise construction in the 1920s and 30s began to break up the tenements and old low-rise businesses, and, in 1946, eviction notices were distributed to the residents of Washington Street for Robert Moses’s plans to construct the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The later construction of the World Trade Center demolished much that remained and put the nail in the coffin for Washington Street as an ethnic enclave. Eventually, Washington Street would be almost fully erased of its physical reminders except for a handful of buildings that activists have been trying to preserve for over a decade.

We believe it is critical to preserve these building so that some sense of the historical Washington Street will remain for posterity. You can help us make new history by supporting our memorialization and historic preservation efforts.