The late 19th century city was home to a massive tide of new immigrants: Russian, Italian, Hungarian, Chinese.
Amid the lower Manhattan neighborhoods these newcomers settled in was Little Syria.
Also known as the Syrian Quarter, it was a vibrant enclave along Washington Street near the Battery where thousands of Syrian Christians, Armenians, Greeks, and others from Middle Eastern and Mediterranean communities lived.
Here, they resided in tenements and operated dry goods stores, textile factories, and cafes selling pastries and coffee.
The following account of arriving in Little Syria and making a home in the neighborhood comes from a 1906 book about the immigrant experience.
The account is based on a composite of “three young Syrians of Washington Street, New York.” The composite grew up in Lebanon, but the political situation there at the time made life difficult.
He and his family decided to take a steamship to New York with just $60 in their pockets. “We knew that that was in the United States, and we heard that poor people were not oppressed there,” he stated.
“My uncle had a friend who met us at Ellis Island and helped to get us quickly out of the vessel, and ten hours after we had come into the bay we were established in two rooms in the third story of a brick house in Washington Street, only three blocks away from Battery Park.”
“Two minutes’ walk from us was roaring Broadway, seven minutes’ walking brought us to the Bridge entrance. . . . [T]here was so much that was strange and new and suggestive of life and power that I never got tired of looking at the buildings on the land and the vessels of all sorts that shot about through the waters.”
Because he knew English, “I had no difficulty securing work as a clerk at an Oriental goods store, where some other Syrians were employed.” His uncle and mother, who kept house for them, also found work.
“Between us we earned $22 a week, and as our rent was only $10 a month and food did not cost any more than $6 a week, we saved money.”
“I remained a clerk for three years and then became a reporter for a Syrian newspaper, as I thought that my education entitled me to aspire,” he continued. A year later, he started a printing business “in Washington Street, which is the center of our quarter. Soon I had a newspaper of my own.”
“The little Syrian city which we have established within the big city of New York has its distinctive life and its distinctive institutions.”
“It has six newspapers printed in Arabic, one of them a daily; it has six churches conducted by Syrian priests, and many stores, whose signs, wares, and owners are all Syrian.”
“There are two Syrian drug stores and many dry goods, notions, jewelry, antiques, and French novelties, and manufacturers of brooches, kimonas, wrappers, suspenders, tobacco, cigarettes, silk embroidery, silk shawls, Oriental goods, rugs, arms, etc.”
“A Syrian restaurant recently established in Cortlandt Street is the best in the city. Our people are active and doing well in business here, as any one may know by looking at the number of advertisements in the newspapers.”
“When we first came we expected to return to Syria, but this country is very attractive and we have stayed until we have put out roots. Two-thirds of our men now are American citizens, and the others are fast progressing along the same lines.”
“Still we feel friendship for the old country and a desire to secure her welfare and especially her freedom.”
Little Syria thrived for a few more decades. But by the 1940s, when the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel demolished much of the neighborhood, it mostly disappeared, with many residents decamping for Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue.
St. George’s Church on Washington Street appears to be the last remnant.