Monument Proposed for FiDi Park to Recall Little Syria
A plan to create a memorial dedicated to the writers of the Arab diaspora, who came together in Lower Manhattan during the early years of the 20th century, will add four graphic walls, one bench wall, and a sculpture to Elizabeth Berger Plaza, a small, triangular park bounded by Greenwich Street, Edgar Street, and Trinity Place, and the exit ramp from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.
These panels will contain passages from members of the Pen League, the first Arabic-language literary society in the United States, which was formed in 1920 by a group of poets, led by the renowned Kahlil Gibran, who lived in this neighborhood and wrote: “The whole earth is my homeland, and the human family is my tribe.”
Among the other luminaries will be Naseeb Arida (“I adopted America as my beloved homeland. I wanted of her a life of freedom. And that I have found.”) and Agabia Malouf (“It is for us in the American diaspora to study the meaning of freedom and carry it back home.”).
The panels containing these texts will consist of mosaics and clear coated, painted stainless steel. The overall budget for the project, which is titled, “Rabitah: Poets in the Park,” is $900,000. (“Rabitah” is the Arabic word for “bond.”) The design is by French-Moroccan artist Sara Ouhaddou, whose work is informed by the experience of growing up between two cultures. The project was kickstarted by years of grassroots lobbying by local groups, such as the Washington Street Historical Society, and community leaders such as preservationist and historian Todd Fine.
The proposed design was discussed at the March 28 meeting of Community Board 1 (CB1), where Paul Goldstein, who chairs the Board’s Waterfront, Parks & Cultural Committee, noted, “the park is in a spot that was the former neighborhood known as Little Syria. The Parks Department is trying to build an artwork that would recognize that neighborhood and that community.”
“They have planned an elaborate piece that is intended to pay homage to the Syrian community through their literature and to recognize the contributions of that community in Lower Manhattan,” he continued. “It is a rather complex and extensive proposal. There were quite a few questions that were raised. We asked for more time to review it and they agreed to that.”
Board chair Tammy Meltzer said, “It’s super important that the people who are current parents at P.S. 150,” which is located across Edgar Street from Elizabeth Berger Plaza, “take a really good look, because although that park is not designed for children, any parent who is waiting for pick-up is in that park.”
Morton Minsley, who is both a CB1 member and a P.S. 150 parent, said, “I looked at the park after I saw the presentation, and I am concerned that this is going to convert that park into an art installation, and it’s going to just overwhelm the park.”
CB1 district manager Lucian Reynolds said representatives from the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation had agreed to slow the process of implementing the “Rabitah: Poets in the Park” project until they had consulted further with the Community Board.
Today, the area of Greenwich and Washington Streets between Battery Place and Albany Street—bisected by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entrance—is known by the forgettable name “Greenwich South.” By all appearances, it is an orphan of a neighborhood that never quite coalesced, but nothing could be further from the truth. A century ago, before the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center decimated this once-thriving quarter, it was an ethnic enclave as vibrant as Little Italy or Chinatown.
The immigrants who flocked here were mostly Arab and the neighborhood was called “Little Syria.” The length of Greenwich Street, north of Battery Park and south of Liberty Street, was home to newcomers from Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem—what Mulberry Street was for Italian transplants and Canal Street was for the Chinese. Their life took place beneath the Ninth Avenue Elevated Train, which ran up Greenwich Street, and the Rector Street station was the center of their small town. (As difficult as it is to envision this perilously narrow lane accommodating a railroad viaduct, it did.) The social and spiritual focus of the community was St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, for most of the Arabic-speaking immigrants who lived here were Christian (of the Maronite and Melkite sects), rather than Muslim.
One still-visible relic of this past is the St. George Tavern, on Washington Street, just north of Rector Street. Nw a Chinese restaurant, this structure was once the St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church. The building (landmarked in 2009), was erected as a rooming house in 1812, but reclad in white terra cotta, complete with a relief sculpture of the chapel’s patron, slaying a dragon, when it was converted into a church in 1930.
In the 1940s, construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel erased many square blocks of the neighborhood. During this period, the construction of the West Side Elevated Highway also cut off Little Syria from the surrounding area. St. Joseph’s Church, which stood where the Battery Parking Garage is now located, was demolished. (Its cornerstone was found amid excavation of debris from the World Trade Center site in 2002.) In the 1950s, the Ninth Avenue El was taken out of service and its tracks torn down, further isolating the neighborhood. As New York’s status as a port declined and nearby docks were abandoned, the constant stream of imports that was the economic lifeblood for the community slowed. (In the 1970s, those piers would finally be demolished to make way for the landfill that became Battery Park City.) But Little Syria’s death knell was the construction of the World Trade Center, beginning in the late 1960s, which seized several more blocks of the community, and effectively sealed its northern border. The small remnant of the 100,000-plus Arab population that had once lived there decamped for Brooklyn, where Atlantic Avenue is now the thoroughfare that Washington and Greenwich Streets were.