Brook Wilensky-Lanford: Discovering “Little Syria”

tags: New York City, Religion Dispatches, Little Syria, Brook Wilensky-Lanford



Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011) and an editor of the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha.

I don’t think much of the patch of Lower Manhattan surrounding the former World Trade Center towers that I pass through almost daily on my way between work and home in Jersey City. Between the Jeff Koons balloon statue in front of the PATH station to the Century 21 department store, and south to Zuccotti Park, the landscape is teeming with scaffolding, glossy announcements of things to come, construction cranes, and throngs of tourists coming to pay their respects to the 9/11 Memorial Tribute Center, and, it seems, simply to stand on the street and ogle the spot of sky where the towers used to be.

So I was kind of shocked to find out recently that from 1880 to 1940, the stretch of the Lower West Side of Manhattan from Park Street down to Battery Park, along Greenwich and Washington Streets, was known as “Little Syria.” An exhibit of the same name has been running this month, created by the Arab American National Museum of Dearborn, Michigan, in a space rented from Three Legged Dog, a multi-arts space carved out of the ground floor of the Brooklyn Battery Parking Garage.

This very block was the first destination for the waves of immigrants from the Ottoman Empire-occupied lands known as “Greater Syria,” which now encompass Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel. This first Arabic-speaking community in the U.S. was home to at least 50 Arabic language newspapers and magazines, dozens of Eastern Christian churches, and bustling restaurants, bakeries, silk-traders, tailors, all living vertically next to the elevated train tracks, in time-honored New York City tenement tradition....



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