Standing in the shadows of the towering skyscrapers in the lower west side of modern day Manhattan, you would never know the heart of Arab America once beat from here.
Just two short blocks south of Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial on Washington Street stands the tiny island of what remains of the historic ‘Little Syria’ neighborhood.
“In my view it’s miraculous that these three buildings have been preserved,” said Todd Fine as he gazed up at them, squinting under the bright, hot summer sun.
In his early 30s, Fine is the historical and strategic advisor of Save Washington Street, a grassroots organization working to protect what is left of Little Syria.
He exudes enthusiasm when he talks about Little Syria. But this is not just a feel-good activity for him. During Hurricane Sandy, Fine journeyed to the buildings to make sure they were okay and personally placed sandbags around the old church.
Yet he speaks cautiously at times, because he’s not just concerned about preservation. He also sees an opportunity in Little Syria’s proximity to the World Trade Center to open up a deeper dialogue about U.S./Arab relations.
In fact, he’s asking the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to mention Little Syria in its permanent historical exhibit in order to do just that. So far the museum has not agreed to his requests.
But the history of Little Syria is significant. It was the first working class Arab-American neighborhood in the U.S..
From the 1870s to the 1940s, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Greek, Turkish and Armenian immigrants settled in the area.
Most of the Arab immigrants were Christians. However, there was a young men’s Muslim society at 67 Washington Street, according to the 1930 Syrian American Directory Almanac.
The once bustling neighborhood thrived with peddlers, grocers, restaurants, tailors, exporters, importers, linen stores, lingerie shops and clothing stores.
For Carl Antoun, the Director of Save Washington Street, the connection is personal. His family’s old exporting firm on Stone Street can be found among the businesses listed in the Almanac.
“My family operated the biggest firm in the whole neighborhood. This is why I got connected to Little Syria,” he said.
His grandmother’s uncle first came to the U.S. in 1885 and lived and worked in Little Syria until the 1940s, he added.
Like Fine, Antoun also sees an opportunity in educating people about Little Syria.
“It could help give Americans a better understanding of how the Middle East works,” he said. “It could create a bridge between East and West.”
“The early Lebanese and Syrian immigrants were just as American as every other ethnic group who passed through Ellis Island. They were patriotic, they fought in both world wars… and they deserve a place in American history just like everyone else,” he added.
Little Syria was also a literary and journalistic hotbed in its heyday. It had dozens of newspapers, publishers and printers operating in the area, and was home to two of the world’s most famous Arab-American writers – Khalil Gibran and Ameen Rihani.
When Fine speaks about Little Syria, his face lights up and he smiles warmly, particularly when discussing Rihani.
Fine edited the recent republication of Rihani’s novel “The Book of Khalid,” which is considered the first Arab-American novel.
“Rihani and others understood the potential for the U.S. to create friends in the Middle East,” Fine said. “This whole area is invested with these ghosts.”
In the 1940s, during New York’s exploding urban and industrial expansion, construction for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and later the World Trade Center swallowed up most of Little Syria.
Today all that remains is an inhabited six-story red brick tenement building, a vacant old community center and St. George Melkite Maronite church, which until very recently functioned as an Irish pub.
But today Little Syria’s three remaining buildings are in danger, Fine said.
A new high-rise Holiday Inn hotel is going up right next to the old Maronite church, towering over it. Scaffolding obstructs the front of the church, and construction workers bustle in and out of the building.
In the lot next to the tenement building, Fine said another high-rise building is planned, which will sandwich the remnants of Little Syria in between the two monstrous skyscrapers.
The church was granted landmark preservation status in 2009, but Fine said it could become the bar and restaurant for the new Holiday Inn. This could endanger the interior of the building, he said.
The other two buildings are not protected and the New York landmark preservation society has not agreed to recognize these buildings as historical landmarks yet.
But the architecture of the old community center building is colonial revival style, which Fine said is significant.
“That is one of the strongest arguments for its preservation,” Fine added.
“Implicitly, it’s saying that the immigrants should think of themselves in connection with the foundations of the country… would see themselves as part of the fabric of the country. Which is a powerful message to have,” Fine said.
Because of this, Fine said he feels strongly that the National September 11 Memorial and Museum have a responsibility to include a bit of this history. Fine said he worries about the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. since 9/11.
“We have to be aware of the implications. People have died in hate crimes in the U.S. – there have been wars in the Arab world,” he said.
Inclusion of Little Syria in the museum’s historical exhibit could help build a cultural bridge that could lead to a climate of greater understanding, he added.
“What do we aspire to? What did we learn from what happened?” he asks about the terror attacks of September 11.
Fine said he asked the museum to include a cornerstone from another Maronite church, St. Joseph’s, which was located just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center at 157 Cedar Street. The cornerstone was recovered in the WTC rubble in October of 2002, according to a 2012 New York Times story.
Fine also asked for one sentence to be included about the ethnic makeup of the area in the museum’s permanent historical exhibit.
A spokesperson at the 9/11 memorial said the museum is not making any further public comments about this.
However, a recent letter to Fine from the museum’s director Alice Greenwald said, “we remain open to recording oral histories from members of the Maronite Catholic Community and also from those working to preserve awareness of the Little Syria neighborhood.”
The letter also said the museum is willing to consider displaying the St. Joseph’s cornerstone into a future rotating exhibit.
Fine and Antoun would still like to see the museum do more.
They are not alone in their efforts.
The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee sent a letter to the museum inquiring about the exclusion of Little Syria from the 9/11 museum’s permanent historical exhibit, and why the memorial doesn’t have Arabic-language brochures available for visitors, which the ADC sees as a more significant issue, said Raed Jarrar, director of communications and advocacy.
“We didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and that’s why reached out to them,” said Jarrar. “We see a pattern of excluding Arab American heritage and language from the museum.”
No brochures are available in Arabic at the 9/11 memorial.
However, a guide at the memorial said the criteria for selecting the languages available corresponded to the demographic makeup of visitors to the area.
It remains unclear how New Yorkers would feel about the incorporation of Little Syria into the permanent historical exhibit at the 9/11 Museum, particularly after all the controversy that surrounded the Park 51 Mosque.
September 11 is deeply personal to many New Yorkers, and subtle signs of its memory permeate the city. On line 3 of the New York Subway, a group of construction workers with dusty pants sat and talked boisterously in thick New York accents. One of the workers wore a T-shirt that said 09-11-01 on the cuff of the sleeve.
The 9/11 Memorial is a powerful reminder of the horror New Yorkers witnessed that day.
Fine and Antoun say they will continue their preservation efforts, including negotiations with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to have Little Syria included in the museum’s permanent historical exhibit.
In the meantime, Fine said he worries about the fate of Little Syria’s last three buildings.
Both Fine and Antoun would like to see someone purchase the old tenement building and community center and turn them into an Arab cultural center that would honor Little Syria’s literary legacy and its history.
“I feel guilty,” he said. “I wish I could wave a magic wand and find a buyer for it.”