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Marc Haefele: the Arab roots of Ground Zero

Syrian kids in Little Syria in NYC
Syrian kids in Little Syria in NYC

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Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele lived in New York City for many years, so he wasn't shocked that Muslims wanted to build a community center, and perhaps a mosque, near Ground Zero. After all, he knew they'd been a major part of that neighborhood since -- are you sitting down? -- 1870. UPDATE: Commentator Marc Haefele filed this commentary last year, when the controversy of the day was the fight over building a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. The controversy seems to be simmering now, with any construction in the old Burlington Coat Factory building probably years away. The controversy struck Marc as odd, because he remembered what the Ground Zero site used to be long before the Twin Towers were built.

The Return of Little Syria
By Marc Haefele

In all the discussions and arguments brought regarding the proposed P51 Islamic Community Center's proximity to the city of the World Trade Center in downtown New York, I'm astonished to see that one  important historical fact hasn't turned up. It's about time that it did.

It's that the controversial cultural center (not a mosque, although it may include one) is close to another important historical site, obliterated when the WTC was begun in 1967.

It was Manhattan's old Arab District, which flourished for nearly a century. Yes, much of the region the P51's denigrators defend as sacred American ground, was, from about 1870 on, the home of many thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants -- largely Muslim.

This was "Little Syria," both an Arab ghetto and  a popular tourist zone, which the Los Angeles Herald proclaimed in April 11, 1909 as having "the mystery of the Orient upon it."


(Photo: "A man, wearing a fez, selling drinks from an ornate, portable, samovar-like dispenser in the Syrian Quarter of New York City." US Library of Congress.)

Little Syria was frequented by the humble and the celebrities--including actor John Barrymore, who loved to eat at a place he'd persuaded the owner to rename "The Sheik," after the Valentino film. Other popular restaurants included "The Nile," "Little Egypt," and "Lebanon." The coffee houses were renowned for their dense, aromatic brews. In 1941, the New York Times reported Little Syrians as "friendly; they readily enter into conversation with the visitor, to talk about their native lands and customs." 

(Photo: Syrian children playing in New York street. US Library of Congress.)

A 1905 Baltimore Sun reporter noted, "troops of black-haired, olive-skinned children play in the streets, and lithe, slender and generally pretty mothers gossip in the doorways; the fruit stalls, bakeries and groceries are stocked with many things unfamiliar to the American eye and palate." Little Syria was so important a part of the New York ethnic scene for so long that it now seems incredible it's so completely forgotten.

The district ran down the Lower West Side, along Washington Street south to what is now Battery Park City. Unfortunately, it flourished before poor neighborhoods had any  standing in urban planning. In 1940, the Brooklyn Battery tunnel erased much of it. By 1950, the West Side Highway (long since torn down) destroyed more of Little Syria.

When I showed up in the early 1960s, just a block or two remained--including Sahadi's market at 195 Washington Street, which had the best baklava and apricot leather in the city.  As well as some wonderfully crafted musical instruments -- ouds and hourglass drums. In 1967 it vanished under the WTC jackhammers -- even the original streets are now gone. The old businesses moved to Brooklyn or died. And I moved away too.


(Sahadi's today. Flikr/Rachael Ash.)

Now, in another century, the tragedy of 9-11 is offered as an excuse to refuse some 700,000 New York Moslems their right  to observe and celebrate their faith where they please. Freedom of Religion means
nothing, of course, if it only applies to religions everyone approves of.

But there's another reason for P51 to be built where it's planned. It's that the location is so close to New York's lost but once vital Islamic-Middle Eastern past ... which the new center for an emerging new Islamic population cannot but serve to commemorate and recall to us.

(Marc Haefele is a literary and cultural commentator for KPCC's Off-Ramp.)