Most Americans, and even many Arab-Americans, are unaware that the Lower West Side of Manhattan was once the center of Arab life in the United States, from the 1880s to the 1940s called “Little Syria” or the “Mother Colony.” Obscured from history as the result of the eminent domain actions for the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in 1946, its physical destruction was compounded by vanishing memory within its diverse ethnic communities, also including Greeks, Armenians, Czechs, and others.
Fortunately, by a kind of miracle, three buildings remain and are physically connected: 103 Washington Street, a beautiful terra-cotta Melkite church; 105-107 Washington Street, a community house inaugurated by the governor of New York Al Smith to serve the Little Syria neighborhood; and 109 Washington Street, a tenement building still containing apartments. Since a 2003 manifesto appeal by tour guide Joseph Svehlak and bolstered by the launching of the “Save Washington Street” campaign in 2011, members of the historical society have argued that these three buildings deserve to be protected, either as individual landmarks or as a small historic district, to leave some general trace of an ethnic neighborhood that has been devastated like no other in the city. We continue these efforts and hope that renewed efforts in 2014 will lead the city to schedule a basic hearing on the Downtown Community House and the last tenement at 109 Washington Street.
There are several things you can do to help!
1. Sign up for our mailing list to follow important developments in the advocacy for historic preservation in Little Syria.
2. Learn more about the preservation crisis situation by watching this film “The Sacred” by Özge Doğan or by reading some of our press clippings.
3. Write the chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission a personal letter and communicate why you feel the Downtown Community House and the 109 tenement deserve a fair hearing:
Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan
Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor North
New York, NY 10007
4. Encourage local politicians to support designation. On June 9, 2011, Community Board 1 of Lower Manhattan in New York City passed a resolution requesting that the Preservation Commission designate the “Little Syria” community center at 105-107 Washington Street because of its combined “Colonial Revival” architectural value and socio-historical importance. Margaret Chin, the City Councilmember for this area, has also sent a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission requesting a hearing. If you have ideas on how to reach Mayor Bill de Blasio or other New York politicians, please let us know!
5. Initiate an event at your school, church, or ethnic community organization/club on the issue. Members of the Washington Street Historical Society are happy to give talks about the history and about our preservation efforts. Contact us!
6. Donate to the Washington Street Historical Society. We need funds to further advance our preservation efforts, along with other related programs. Funds are spent on postcards, travel, and legal support.
7. Support research on the architectural and historic merit of these buildings. In 2012, we commissioned a report by architectural expert Kate Reggev to document the importance of the Downtown Community House and the 109 Washington Street. Here you can read the report and its attached images. Work with us to discover additional information.