The Sacred tells the story of the Syrian neighborhood located at the foot of Manhattan and the transformations it has undergone.
Beginning in 1880
History of the Syrian Colony on Washington Street
“Syrians” (from both present-day Syria and present-day Lebanon) began immigrating to the United States. They came for a number of reasons—both “push” and “pull.” Many were drawn by the opportunities they thought awaited them in America, introduced to them by American missionary schools in Lebanon and Syria.
Others were affected by a drastic fall in silk prices, which devastated many communities in Mt. Lebanon forcing them to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Still others went for that age-old reason: adventure.
After an arduous three-week journey from the eastern Mediterranean, they disembarked at Battery Park and walked the few hundred feet to the foot of Washington Street on the lower west side of Manhattan, where they settled in tenements already populated by Irish and German immigrants. Washington Street became the center of the Syrian colony: from the Battery to Albany Street, Arabic was heard as often as English, and Arabic signs appeared on dozens of storefronts. New Yorkers ventured downtown to see these “exotic” new residents.
Entrepreneurs were the economic motor of the colony. Syrian textile factories on Washington Street produced dressing gowns and kimonos, “waists,” or lace. One such factory reportedly employed two hundred Syrians in 1895. Women were employed by Syrian cigarette manufacturers who imported Turkish tobacco. “Turkish smoking parlors” were the bright idea of an Iraqi entrepreneur, who opened the first one in 1895; they quickly became the rage, with 500 supposedly in operation in New York in 1900. Women too worked as peddlers, either on their own or alongside the men, and were just as successful. After marrying, many stopped peddling, but others continued to work, in Syrian-owned factories, small mom-and-pop shops, or as midwives, merchants, or in one case, as a very successful high-end jeweler.
Some of the first immigrants came armed with a university education, including some with medical degrees from Syrian Protestant College (today the American University of Beirut). There were many others who were literate in Arabic and/or English, and several of them began to publish Arabic newspapers, the first of which appeared in 1892. Poets and writers first published in newspapers and then began to publish books of poetry, essays, and novels in both Arabic and English. The Pen Bond, founded in 1916 and again in 1920 by ten poets and writers, was the embodiment of the success of this colony.
The great majority of those who came were Christians: Maronites (Lebanese Catholics), Melkites (Greek Catholics), Orthodox, and a sprinkling of Protestants. They attended American churches until they could bring over their own Arabic-speaking priests, the first of whom arrived in 1890; others followed in short order. The priests raised money from their respective congregations to convert Washington Street loft spaces into chapels, where Sunday services and baptisms and weddings took place.
Around the turn of the century,
prosperous Syrians began to move their families to Brooklyn, where the accommodations were cleaner, larger, and cheaper, and they could easily commute to lower Manhattan on the ferry. [The Brooklyn colony quickly became known as “Little Syria.” This did not mean Washington Street was abandoned: far from it. New Syrian immigrants flooded in, taking the place of those who had moved to Brooklyn, still living in the same miserable conditions as their predecessors.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, Lebanese and Syrian Americans had become fully assimilated into the American way of life, and many had become successful throughout the country. With restrictive changes to American immigration law in the early 1920s, fewer newer immigrants arrived to replenish the immigrant cohort and maintain the authenticity of Washington Street. Highrise construction in the 1920s and’30s began to break up the tenements and old low-rise businesses, and in 1946, eviction notices were distributed to the residents of Washington Street for Robert Moses’s plans to construct the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
The later construction of the World Trade Center demolished much that remained and put the nail in the coffin for Washington Street as an ethnic enclave. Eventually, Washington Street would be almost fully erased of its physical reminders except for a handful of buildings that activists have been trying to preserve for over a decade.
They too, eventually moved up and out; the last vestiges of their presence were wiped out by the building of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1940s.