Big New York, Little Syria

Figure 1: Lower Manhattan, with its highest building, the One World Trade Center, the tallest skyscraper in the Americas. View taken from the Empire State Building.

“It is to stand before the towers of New York and Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, “I am the descendant of a people that builded Damascus and Byblos, and Tyre and Sidon and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.

Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you.”

(Gibran Khalil Gibran, I Believe in You)

 

New York is one of financial and cultural capitals of the world. Lower Manhattan, the Downtown, is on of the Planet’s most eminent financial hubs (See Figure 1). As “laboratory of the Humanity”, New York may be the city with the greatest cultural diversity where many immigrants choose to live and work, to participate in the zeitgiest production of the city but at the same time to remain somewhat close and tied to culture of their native lands. One of the most interesting “ethnic” neighbourhoods is a one which exists no more, Little Syria, situated in the Downtown Manhattan. This neighbourhood is practically “extinct”, yet it has had great central influences on the country of origin, that is, Syria, Lebanon and the Levant in general. In this article we shall see how a small and relatively marginal community could have a central influence elsewhere.

Figure 1: Lower Manhattan, with its highest building, the One World Trade Center, the tallest skyscraper in the Americas. View taken from the Empire State Building.

Figure 1: Lower Manhattan, with its highest building, the One World Trade Center, the tallest skyscraper in the Americas. View taken from the Empire State Building.

 

The “Syrian Quarter” or Little Syria

In the 1880s many Syro-Lebanese immigrants began to pour into the United States via Ellis Island and New York. Most of them were Christians seeking a better life in the New World. By 1899 there were more than 3000 Syro-Lebanese people living in what came to be called “Syrian Quarter” and “Little Syria”, according to a contemporary article in New York Times [1]. 

Figure 2: An old postcard showing the location of Little Syria, around Washington Street in lower Manhattan.

Figure 2: An old postcard showing the location of Little Syria, around Washington Street in lower Manhattan. Image is property of Arab American National Museum.

Little Syria was centred on Washington Street in lower Manhattan, a few blocks aways from the Hudson docks and the Battery Park (See Figure 2). Community life was around the church of Saint George on 103 Washington St. and on the community house on the 105-107th [2]. But the immigrants, once integrated into the “big” American society, left Little Syria and no real constituency remained there. Washington Street old buildings, being in the heart of New York’s centrality had been demolished and new skyscrapers were constructed. The only left buildings are the church of Saint George, now a restaurant, and the community house (See Figure 3) [3]. Little Syria, although “mother colony” of Syrians in the United States, was almost forgotten as a community because it was relatively marginal to the society of New York, even if it was spatially located in its very centre and heart. Yet the influence of this Syrian Quarter was central to the native land from which the Syro-Lebanese immigrants came. Little Syria shaped some of the most recurrent literary traditions in Arabic Language. This lasting importance was via the famous Pen Bond and its prominent writers, notably Gibran Khalil Gibran.

Figure 3: Saint George's church and the community house, Little Syria, 104-107 Washington Street, Manhattan, New York

Figure 3: Saint George’s church and the community house, Little Syria, 103-107 Washington Street, Manhattan, New York.

 

The Pen Bond and its importance

A league of writers and authors emerged from the society of immigrants in Little Syria: the Pen Bond of North America, one of the most influential literary movements in Arabic language. The Pen Bond was formed in 1916 by some Syrian, that is, Syro-Lebanese, immigrant writers to the United States of America with the aim of renewing Arabic Language and saving it from its then “stagnant” situation [4]. The most famous of its founders were Gibran Khalil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy, both considered to be of the most prominent writers of Lebanon and in the twentieth-century Arabic literature. Gibran Khalil Gibran, the “Prophet” of literature, immigrated to the United States in the 1890s to find a better future, and passed by Boston before settling down in New York. While he is still famous and well known in New York, he is almost a saint in Lebanon and in Syria. He is regarded as one of the main renovators of Arabic Language in the XXth Century. Mikhail Naimy is also considered as one of the greatest writers in XXth-century Arabic.

Some other well known poets and writers founded the Pen Bond: Nasib Arida, Amin Rihani, William Katseflis, and Rashid Ayyoub, amongst others. All the mentioned writers were quite eminent and famous in Syria and in Lebanon: today their writings are still read, quoted and reproduced.

The Pen Bond dissolved following Gibran’s death in 1931 and Naimy’s return to Lebanon in 1932. But its legacy is tremendously important for Arabic Language. The new literary styles and genres introduced by the Bond’s writers were central to the renovation of Arabic literature and later to form a new discourse never known before, on liberties, freedom and on the rights to self-determination. The Bond’s legacy is simply central to Arabic culture.

 

Relative centrality

The case of Little Syria is inetersting: a community situated, spatially, in the centre; but socially marginal. Yet its influence elsewhere is central, that is, on the native countries of its population. A “relative” centrality: what is marginal to some community is central to another, and spatial centrality is not necessarily a social one.

It could be interesting to analyse the lasting influence of Little Syria on big Syria in a serious academic work. Interesting to see how the diaspora could influence culture and development of its ex-homeland [5]; and in terms of centres and centralities how a marginal community can have a central effect.

“Big” Syria is, maybe, fading away with the civil war which has been torturing her for three years and might change her forever. Is it the suitable time to get interested in Little Syria while the Big Syria herself might be passing away? Yes it is, more than ever.

 

The southernmost part of Manhattan: the Battery Park and the One World Trade Center. Little Syria was between these two beautiful today's landmarks of New York

The southernmost part of Manhattan: the Battery Park and the One World Trade Center. Little Syria was between these today’s landmarks of New York.

 

Image Credit: Arab American National Musuem, Jack Keilo.

 

References

[1] Cromwell Childe, 1899, “New York’s Syrian Quarter” in New York Times. URL: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9D07E3D61430E132A25753C2A96E9C94689ED7CF

[2] BBC news Magazine, 7 February 2012, Preserving New York City’s ‘Little Syria’. URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16936966

[3] Landmarks Preservation Commission, New York, 2009, (Former) St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church. URL: http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/stgeorgechurch.pdf

[4] Al Funun, Al Rabitah al Qalamiyah. URL: http://www.al-funun.org/penbond/index.html

[5] Arab American National Museum, 2013, Little Syria NY, an immigrant community’s life and legacy. URL: http://www.arabamericanmuseum.org/little.syria.ny.exhibit

 

 

 

 

 

 


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