|The Historic Districts Council (HDC) — a non-profit that advocates for the preservation of significant historic neighborhoods, buildings and public spaces throughout New York City — has shortlisted the Lower West Side of Manhattan as an area worthy of protection.|
“Prior to the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center, the area from roughly Liberty Street to Battery Place west of Broadway was host to a vibrant immigrant neighborhood called the Lower West Side,” HDC notes in its designation. “Initially populated by Irish and German immigrants, it later became a Middle Eastern enclave (known as the ‘Syrian Quarter’ or ‘Little Syria’) and was subsequently home to a large Slavic population. The area’s major redevelopment in the mid-20th century nearly wiped the neighborhood off the map, but several buildings still exist to tell the story.”
The HDC is partnering with a local preservation group, Friends of the Lower West Side, to focus public attention and mobilize popular support for efforts to save the structures that remain from that era. HDC’s executive director, Simeon Bankoff, says “neighborhoods throughout New York are fighting an unseen struggle to determine their own futures. By bringing these locally-driven neighborhood preservation efforts into the spotlight, HDC hopes to focus New Yorkers’ attention on the very real threats that historic communities throughout the City are facing from indiscriminate and inappropriate development. And the Friends of the Lower West Side is determined to make sure this history is not lost. They will appeal to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect a small area of significance, as well as expand its oral history program, publish a written history, and offer walking tours to raise awareness.”
Current preservation efforts are focused on a pair of historic buildings on Washington Street, between Rector and Carlisle Streets. The southernmost of the pair, located at 105-107 Washington Street, is the former Downtown Community House, which was opened in 1926 to serve the then-thriving immigrant community that was also know as “the Syrian Quarter,” which was the nexus of Arab culture in the United States. Next door is 109 Washington Street, the last surviving tenement apartment building on lower Washington Street, which one housed upwards of 50 households, and was populated by a cross-section of the neighborhood’s melting pot diversity.
“These are very important buildings,” argues Todd Fine, a founder of the preservation group, Save Washington Street, and president of the Washington Street Historical Society. “Local historians have been pushing for their preservation of these buildings since 2003. The Lower West Side of Manhattan is one of the most diverse areas in the history of the United States.”
Today, the stretch 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 World Trade Center or the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (two of the giant public works projects that decimated this once-thriving quarter), it was an ethnic enclave as vibrant as Little Italy or Chinatown.
But the immigrants who flocked here were Arabs. The length of Washington Street, north of Battery Park and south of Liberty Street, was to newcomers from Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem, what Mulberry Street was for Italian transplants and Canal Street was for the Chinese. Their life was centered beneath the Ninth Avenue Elevated Train, which ran up Greenwich Street. (As difficult as it is to envision this perilously narrow lane accommodating a railroad viaduct, it once did — and the station at Rector Street was the center of their urban village.) 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, Melkite, and Antiochian Orthodox sects), rather than Muslim. But there also appears to have been a mosque (one of the first in the United States) once located at 17 Rector Street.
By 1946, however, the New York Times would observe with grim prescience that, “Washington Street, at the lower end of Manhattan Island, is today a condemned street. From Rector Street to Battery Place, all the people who live there and run restaurants and spice shops and Oriental bakeries and newspapers have received notice to vacate.” Shortly after the end of World War Two, 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. (It’s cornerstone was found in excavation of debris from the World Trade Center site in 2002.)
In the 1950s, the Ninth Avenue El 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 withered. (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 has now become Atlantic Avenue is now the thoroughfare that Washington and Greenwich Streets were.
Mr. Fine cites a concern related to the Lower West Side as a whole rather than specific structures within it, which speaks to the heart of the HDC’s designation of the area. “There are broadly protected Historic Districts on the Lower East Side, in Greenwich Village, and in Tribeca,” he notes. “But in one of the oldest parts of the City, there is no such protection.”
This appears to be the case. While Lower Manhattan has small Historic Districts surrounding Stone Street and Fraunces Tavern, and slightly larger enclaves surrounding City Hall and the South Street Seaport, there is no blanket protection for the community as a whole. Within Historic Districts, all buildings are accorded a baseline level of legal protection, which entails heightened official scrutiny before any structure can be demolished.
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