Before the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center, Manhattan’s lower west side was home to one of the largest and earliest communities of Arab Americans in the nation.
In the Little Syria neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, just as in immigrant enclaves of all ethnicities, newly minted Americans simultaneously held dear their old-country traditions and embraced their new nation as they labored, raised their families, educated their children, formed religious and community organizations and gradually became part of the life of New York.
To celebrate the deep-rooted history and sentiment of the community, The Arab American National Museum’s (AANM) traveling exhibition Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life & Legacy begins a three-stop tour in New York City starting Wednesday, May 25, 2016, through Sept. 16, 2016, at the New York City Department of Records and Information Services Visitors Center.
It is scheduled to travel throughout New York City with additional stops at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration Oct. 1, 2016 – Jan. 9, 2017 and the Metropolitan College of New York Jan. 20, 2017 – March 24, 2017. Following its December 2012 premiere at the AANM in Dearborn, Mich., the exhibition was first presented in New York City at the 3LD Art and Technology Center, located in the footprint of the former Little Syria neighborhood.
Later stops included the Museum at Antiochian Village in Bolivar, Penn., and the University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center in Minneapolis, Minn. “We are thrilled to bring the Little Syria, NY exhibition back to the city where the neighborhood once stood,” says Elizabeth Chilton, AANM’s manager of curatorial affairs.
“There are many people who are striving against the tide of development to preserve what is left of the neighborhood and many who are working to preserve the memories of those who once lived there. We are proud to present this exhibition as a reminder of what has been lost and what still remains.”
Between 1880 and 1940, Arab immigrants arriving in New York City from the region then called Greater Syria (modern-day Syria and Lebanon) forged their new American identity around Washington Street in Lower Manhattan. Their entrepreneurial spirit transformed the neighborhood, which came to be known as Little Syria, into a thriving community lined with shops, restaurants and coffeehouses, each furnished with signs written in their native Arabic.
Little Syria was home to literary greats Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) (The Prophet, massively popular book of poetic essays published in 20 languages) and Ameen Rihani (1876-1940) (The Book of Khalid, the first Arab American novel) of the first Arab American literary society, The Pen League. Little Syria also saw the founding of early Arabic-language newspapers including Al-Hoda, the originator of the Arabic-language typeface for Linotype typesetting machines.
New York’s first Arab Christian churches founded congregations there, as residents began new lives as peddlers, merchants, restaurateurs and textile workers, laying the foundation for generations to come. Among the notable businesses in Little Syria were Bardwil Industries, today the largest linen company in the U.S., and a name familiar to generations of southeast Michigan residents – Germack Pistachio Co., founded by Armenian immigrants from Greater Syria.
The Germack family imported products from Arab countries including pistachios, olives, olives oils and spices. Today, it is the oldest roaster of pistachios in the U.S. and one of the few American companies that roast squash/pumpkin seeds in house. Among the images and artifacts that comprise Little Syria, NY are numerous historical photographs including several by the renowned American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) from her Changing New York Works Progress Administration (WPA)/Federal Art Project, shot between 1935-1938.
There is a first edition of Gibran’s beloved book The Prophet signed by the author, and a letter written by Gibran on the subject of Syrian famine relief efforts in Boston. A vintage peddler’s trunk full of its original wares, samples of fine lace available to New York merchants from Syrian-run textile mills, even a fashionable women’s bed jacket by designer Odette Barsa will be on display.
Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life & Legacy Contact venues to confirm exhibition days, times and location. Visit www.arabamericanmuseum.org/ for additional information.