There was once a vibrant neighbourhood in Manhattan known for its stores signs and newspapers written in Arabic, the smell of fresh Baklava wafting from cafés, mothers wearing veils watching their children from the stoop playing in the street. Little Syria existed just south of the current location of the World Trade Center, roughly in present-day Tribeca; the cultural hub of America’s first middle eastern immigrant community.
From the 1880s until the 1940s, Arab-Americans arrived from Greater Syria, which then included present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel, escaping religious persecution and poverty in their homelands. The area became home not just to thousands of Syrians but also to Armenians, Greeks, and other communities from the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The New York Times estimated that as many as 5% of the area’s Arab residents were Muslims, who mostly came from the area of Palestine.
The Christian Syrians established several churches, one of which was St. Joseph’s Maronite Church. A cornerstone of this church was later found in the rubble after the September 11 attacks, more than sixty years after the neighbourhood had disappeared.
An 1899 article made available digitally by The New York Times, about the Syrian Quarter and its 3,000 residents, describes how the newly arrived immigrants made a home for themselves in this “tousled unwashed section of New York”.
“Turks, Armenians, Syrians, when they ship for America, do not leave all their quaint customs, garments, ways of thinking at home. Nor do they become ordinary American citizens directly after landing. Just enough of their traits, dress, ideas remain, no matter how long they have been here, to give the colonies they form spice and a touch of novelty.”
The reporter also notes that there are no diamond-shaped eyes and red fezzes as travelling tale-tellers had stereotyped. “There are, indeed, a number of amazingly pretty girls … prettier than those of any other foreign colony of New York could bring forth.”
The community’s mix of social classes is also noticed by the writer, stating that “Little Syria is curious in that it is made up of Orientals of many stations of life”.
In chapter 14 of a book published in 1906, The life stories of undistinguished Americans as told by themselves, a young Syrian gives his account on his new community…
“The little Syrian city which we have established within the big city of New York has its distinctive life and its distinctive institutions… It has six newspapers printed in Arabic, one of them a daily; it has six churches conducted by Syrian priests, and many stores, whose signs, wares, and owners are all Syrian.”
“When we first came we expected to return to Syria, but this country is very attractive and we have stayed until we have put out roots. Two-thirds of our men now are American citizens, and the others are fast progressing along the same lines … Still we feel friendship for the old country and a desire to secure her welfare and especially her freedom.”
Little Syria declined as a neighbourhood as the inhabitants dispersed to other areas, most notably to Brooklyn, and the neighbourhood disappeared almost entirely in 1940s when the remaining community was displaced by the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.