Trying To Preserve What's Left Of Manhattan's Little Syria

Preservationists are trying to protect the last vestiges of New York's Little Syria. They're seeking historic landmark status for a few buildings in Lower Manhattan. That's all that's left of what was once a thriving neighborhood, and arguably the center of Arab-American life.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Syria, word, this morning, of a massive explosion in central Damascus. There are reports of multiple casualties. Syrian state television is describing the blast as a suicide car bombing. This is just adding to the death and destruction caused by the civil war in that country

Now, a world away in New York City, a little part of Syria is also under threat, but for very different reasons. New York is notorious for building over its own history and few parts of the city have seen as much redevelopment as a neighborhood that used to be known as Little Syria. Preservationists are working to protect the last vestiges of what was once a thriving Arab-American community in Manhattan.

Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In its heyday, Little Syria covered block after block, stretching from what's now the World Trade Center, south to Battery Park. Today, the neighborhood is so small that you could walk right through it and not notice - unless you happen to be walking with Joe Svehlak.

JOE SVEHLAK: You're looking at the church building, which is a neo-Gothic design, beautiful terra-cotta detail with a pediments...

ROSE: Svehlak is a professional tour guide. His mother grew up in the neighborhood. He's part of the coalition that's trying to save the last traces of Little Syria, three buildings on Washington Street, including St. George's Syrian Catholic Church.

TODD FINE: Washington Street was really the heart of the Little Syria community.

ROSE: Todd Fine is the co-founder of Save Washington Street. He says the neighborhood may not look like it now. But from 1880 until World War II, the Lower West Side was a major port of entry for Christians from what's now Syria and Lebanon.

FINE: You would've seen Arabic script on all the signs on this street; cafes, restaurants, factories, import-export businesses, peddlers running around. This would've been a very Arabic-speaking cultural center.

ROSE: Fine says Little Syria was also an important center of Arab-American intellectual life, home to the writers Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani. But the neighborhood was carved up by major redevelopment projects in the 20th century, starting with the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1940s.

FINE: Which really leveled a huge swath of the neighborhood, including most of the old tenements closer to Battery Park, and then ultimately also the World Trade Center in the 1960s, which really devastated the northern ends of the community.

ROSE: One of the remaining buildings in Little Syria, St. George's Church, already has landmark status. But the others, a tenement apartment and a former community house, do not. The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected an application for protected status, because the buildings lack, quote, "architectural and historical significance."

Joe Svehlak, the tour guide, disagrees.

SVEHLAK: Ninety-eight percent of the neighborhood identity is gone already. That's why these three make a magnificent statement, where you have three side by side buildings to signify this was a neighborhood.

ROSE: Millions of tourists a year already pass through the area on their way to see the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. Todd Fine says New York is missing an important chance to tell the story of this forgotten community.

FINE: I'm reading numbers that over 10 million people a year are coming to Little Syria. And there's not a sign, you know. And the last buildings may be destroyed.

ROSE: Without landmark status, Fine worries it won't be long before these buildings make way for modern high-rise hotels, like the 50-story Holiday Inn that's already rising at the corner of the block. And Little Syria will get that much smaller.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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