Preservation Magazine, Summer 2023

How Scholars Are Retrieving Manhattan's Vanished Syrian American Past

During the late 1800s, immigrants from present-day Lebanon, Syria, and historic Palestine began to settle on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. There are few traces of the community they built over the following decades; only three buildings with ties to what is now known as the Syrian quarter remain. But the nonprofit Washington Street Historical Society (WSHS) is looking to celebrate that lost history. Aided in part by a grant from the National Trust’s Telling the Full History Preservation Fund (made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities), the organization has launched an app that introduces this storied pocket of New York. We spoke to WSHS Board Chair Linda Jacobs—who has published two books on the Syrian diaspora in the United States—about the Syrian quarter and the virtual preservation effort.

Linda Jacobs, the chair of the Washington Street Historical Society, in her New York apartment.

photo by: Mo Daoud

Linda Jacobs chairs the Washington Street Historical Society, which is working to spread awareness about a former Manhattan community known as the Syrian quarter.

What was the Syrian quarter?

It was a tenement district. The conditions were grim. The basements flooded all the time. The infant mortality rate was high; tuberculosis was rampant.

Nevertheless, the Syrians thrived. There was a lot of intellectual ferment going on. More than a half-dozen societies were formed in the 19th century. Some were benevolent institutions, some literary, and some religious.

People saved enough money to start their own businesses. They started mom-and-pop shops that served other Syrians, like grocery stores, of which there were many. Barbershops. They ran boardinghouses. They had restaurants, eventually. They had music stores on Washington Street. Others were importers or suppliers. [There was] even some manufacturing.

Why are there so few structures left?

A skyscraper was built on the corner of Washington Street and the Battery in 1904. It was a harbinger of things to come. Land was too valuable for buildings to be only four stories tall. And then in the 1940s, they started constructing the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, and that was the death knell for that part of the street. By the time the tunnel was built, there were a few stores left, and a few people left, but very few. And if you see the pictures from the 1940s, the street even seems a little abandoned.

Do you have any personal connections to the Syrian quarter?

All four of my grandparents were there. Three of them actually lived there. And the fourth did business there. He lived in Brooklyn.

How did you begin researching this neighborhood?

I have a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Archaeology and was an archaeologist. And then I worked in the nonprofit world in the Middle East for quite a while. When I came back to New York in 2004, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I found this naturalization certificate of my grandfather in Denver. My father had said, “I don’t know what your grandfather was doing in Denver.” And I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll find out.” I did a family tree myself and went down to the New York City Municipal Archives and lived there for months. And now I have maybe 75 trees of all the people that I’m interested in.

Did you ever talk with your family about their experiences?

No. And that’s one of the mysteries of the Syrian quarter. That’s why I wrote my first book [Strangers in the West: The Syrian Colony of New York City, 1880-1900]. I think it’s unlike the Lower East Side, which is so well documented, both by the people who lived there and by the outside world. And this is the opposite. Nobody talks about it.

How will the app work?

Part of the app is to have a walking tour, but also have it be available and informative to people who are not on site. Because, of course, there is nothing left of the buildings. So it must be something that people can read and enjoy without being there. But it is organized geographically and thematically.

What other plans do you have for the future?

Oh, we have so many dreams. We are planning a permanent [public] art installation that will contain quotes from poets and writers of the Syrian community in the 1910s and 1920s. We want people to know about this community and celebrate it in any way with new publications, with art.

Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Tim O'Donnell is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

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