When Lower Manhattan was “Little Syria”

“Washington Street has long been known as ‘Little Syria,’ and those who are interested in different phases of Oriental life find much that is fascinating in this quaint section of the town….”

So begins a 1903 New York Times article on this long-gone little neighborhood between Rector Place and the Battery. It was bulldozed in the 1940s to make way for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

But starting around 1870, Little Syria was thriving, home to mostly Christian immigrants from Syria as well as Lebanon, Turkey, and other Ottoman Empire countries.

The little enclave featured shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses, as the Times article goes on to note.

And cute kids, like the ones in the photo above.

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20 Responses to “When Lower Manhattan was “Little Syria””

  1. petey Says:

    years ago – 25 or 30 – i had dinner at The Ear with a friend of a friend, who was a syrian-new yorker and had grown up in the neighborhood. so it must have survived on some streets, but by the time i met this guy it was extinguished.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    The Ear! Haven’t been in years and miss it.

    It’s amazing to think that Manhattan used to have little ethnic enclaves like that. Some are still around, but Little Syria, the old Czech neighborhood on the UES, and Little Italy in Soho have mostly disappeared.

    • petey Says:

      the czecho neighborhood was in the 50s and 60s i believe – st john nepomucene church is on east 66th street – i grew up with two czechos, one of whose father grew up in that old neighborhood (and told stories of swimming across the east river before the east side drive blocked access)

  3. Sean Says:

    There used to be a coffee bean/ spice store on W. Bdwy and Duane(?) callled Bell Bates, run by an old man whom I think was Syrian or maybe Lebanese. It shut around 1990 after many decades in business.

    There was also a Greek Orthodox Church, St George’s (?) just directly south of the WTC that was destroyed on 9/11. Although the congregants had talked about rebuilding it, I have not heard anything about that in years.

    These two examples are among the last survivors of that Mideast/Western Mediterranean community. I thought it went as far up as Vestry St. and that the WTC was influential in wiping out what remained of their stores and restaurants in the 60s.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Makes sense that construction of the WTC wiped out what was left of the Syrian community. I’d always read that the neighborhood down there by the 1960s was called “Radio Row” for all the electronics stores around Chambers St.

  5. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    I remember Radio Row. My younger brother, who was into radios, dragged me a few times to the shops there. We just crawled around the streets. One time we had drifted into a construction site but they chased us off. It was the future World Trade Center.

  6. Robert Says:

    I’m wondering if the Syrian Christian community in Brooklyn Heights/Cobble Hill emigrated from Little Syria, or was somehow otherwise related. The Church of the Pilgrims became Our Lady of Lebanon in 1942, which indicates the Brooklyn community was already established, but there still may have been links.

  7. wildnewyork Says:

    A few sources I used to research this post reported that some of the original Syrian immigrants in Little Syria soon moved to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and established shops and restaurants there. Many of these still exist.

  8. Stephanie Says:

    Given the styles of the children’s clothes and the quality of the image, I’d guess that photo dates from either the 1890s or the first decade of the 20th century, not the 1870s.

  9. wildnewyork Says:

    You’re probably right. I went back to look a the photo and it isn’t dated; “1878” referred to another photo. I’ll take the date off.

  10. Alex Says:

    Wonderful story!

    You might be interested to see these original photos on my site

    First American diplomat in Syria .. 1859

    http://www.mideastimage.com/viewimages/viewimage.aspx?id=434

    And an American Tourist in Syria in 1870

    http://www.mideastimage.com/viewimages/viewimage.aspx?id=285

    Finally, a Syrian shop owner in New Jersey (not sure) liquidating his stock to go back to Damascus in 1908

    http://www.mideastimage.com/viewimages/viewimage.aspx?id=285

    You can search for tens of other photos by entering the keyword “America” in the search field on top of this page:

    http://www.mideastimage.com/search.aspx

  11. rebecca Says:

    My grandmother was born on Rector Street, then her family moved to Atlantic Avenue, as I think happened with a lot of people from Little Syria. She was born in 1905 to a father who emigrated from Greece and mother who emigrated from Egypt, but spoke Arabic at home and called the food her family traditionally made ‘Syrian’. She said that she had been raised Roman Catholic, although we always assumed they had been eastern orthodox or similar. Does anyone know anything about Roman Catholics amongst the Syrian community of Little Syria or Atlantic Avenue? I am only just starting to do a little research and would be really grateful for any information anyone has!

    • John LaHoud Says:

      Dear Rebecca:

      Your parents may have referred to the Maronite Catholic church, which derived from St. John of Maron; retained its ties to the Roman church and rejected the Eastern; and conducted its mass and other rituals in Aramaic, believed to be the language of Christ. It is still a very strong and active church, both in this country and in Lebanon, so you should have no trouble finding information. I assume your parents’ families originally were Lebanese, who, in this country, often referred to themselves and their food as Syrian. (What is now universally called pita bread we called Syrian bread, which is intriguing for what you say about your father coming from Greece as pita is a Greek word for a type of sandwich, and even Arabs in the Middle East now use pita as a name for their bread.).)

      John LaHoud

      • rebecca Says:

        Dear John

        Thanks very much for the reply – I only just spotted in my inbox so sorry for the delayed reply.

        The information you’ve given me is really very helpful – my grandmother also called pita bread ‘Syrian bread’, so perhaps this makes that connection even more likely. Probably not as relevant, but interesting, that despite the rest of my very diverse heritage, people I have met from Lebanon often say that I look Lebanese! It’s a possible connection I hadn’t been aware of before, but considered recently when looking up my great-grandfather’s last name in the records from Ellis Island. Almost everyone with that name embarked in Beirut. I will start my further research with the Maranites, then, and thank you!

    • Carl Antoun Says:

      Hey Rebecca, are you still doing research? I have ALOT of information that can help you out!

  12. Yousef Says:

    My grandparents came from Aleppo to Washington St in 1909. Some cousins went directly to Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn. Both communities existed simultaneously. Since Syria is at the end of the silk road, many Syrians looked for work in NY/NJ in silk mills as weavers, seamstresses, etc. Not Roman Catholics, but Melkites (Eastern rite of the Catholic church). But, like my grandparents, if they settled in a community without a Melkite church, they went to Roman Catholic church. The Melkite church in Brooklyn was/is Church of the Virgin Mary (which has a website with its history).

    • rebecca Says:

      Dear Yousef
      Thanks for that further information, another possibility to look into. My grandmother’s family also had connections to the textile industry (she was a seamstress in the NY garment district).

  13. ozge Says:

    I just saw that blog and I like its content a lot.
    Dear Yousef and Rebecca, I am just in the beginning of a research period of an installation art project and I am interviewing with people who migrated from Middle East to New York.
    This comments were written long time ago, I wish I could have seen them at that time. I’d like to be in contact with you and if your family’s have stories to tell-I am sure they have about how they migrated and settled- I’ d like to involve them in my project too.
    I’d wish to reach you in private mail but this is the only way to contact with you now
    even if you only want to get in touch with me please don’t hesitate to write (ayseozgedogan@yahoo.com)
    wildnewyork, thank you for the website!
    all the best

  14. When Murray Hill was “Little Armenia” « Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] Little Syria, Little Hungary, the Jewish Quarter: Manhattan really used to be a collection of tight ethnic enclaves. [...]

  15. sarah sahdala Ivec Says:

    Hey Carl! I really admire what you are doing. I had no idea that my relatives helped build little Baskinta. If you recognize anyone in these pics let me know. Thank again !
    Best regards,
    Sarah Sahdala Ivec
    found this thought it was interesting
    Immigrant Ships
Transcribers Guild
    SS Lucania
    passengers:

    25. Sahdala, Abraham 50y; male; married; Merchant; read/write; Syria;
    Syrian; Last residence Manchester England; Nearest person Friend, Mr. E.
    Kahla, 28 Oxford St. Manchester; Destination NY NY; has ticket; Paid
    self; Has more than $50; Has been to NY NY in 1907; Joining Friend Mrs.
    Sahdala, 6072 Washington St. NY, NY; mental and physical health good;
    not deformed or crippled; 6 feet tall; Dark complexion; Brown hair/ Grey
    eyes; no marks of iden; Born in Beskanta Liban Syria.

    26. Sahdala, Eufemio (son of Abraham) 15y; male; single; Clerk;
    read/write; Syria; Syrian; Last residence Manchester England; Nearest
    person Friend, Mrs. Kahla, 28 Oxford St. Manchester England; Destination
    NY NY; Has ticket; Paid by father; Has more than $50; Has been to NYin
    1901 and 1907; Joining Friend Mrs. Sahdala, 6072 Washington St. NY NY;
    mental and physical health good; not deformed or crippled; 5 feet 8
    inches tall; Dark complexion; Brown hair/ Brown eyes; no marks of iden;
    Born in West Indies San Damingo.

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