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The Garden of Damascus in the Heart of Brooklyn

Jun 16, 2015 11:00 AM | 0 comments

June is Immigrant Heritage Month and Brooklyn has long been a destination for new Americans. Shaped by historic waves of Germans, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews, Brooklyn grew from a smattering of Dutch hamlets to a bustling industrial center rich in cultural heritage. Today, Brooklyn remains a hub of immigrant life; home to communities of more recent immigrants from places such as China, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. BPL is doing storytelling workshops and art discussions at the end of the month, so come see us and celebrate our collective heritage! (Oh, and we have a great booklist up, too!)

New York City's Arab-American community is a culturally rich immigrant community that is sometimes overlooked, specifically the first waves arriving at the turn of the twentieth-century from Syria and Lebanon. Both Brooklyn and Manhattan boasted bustling neighborhoods full of food and clothes foreign to American audiences. Manhattan's neighborhood was called "Little Syria."

Incredibly diverse, this neighborhood, called "the Mother Colony” by many inside it, was a mix of people from all acorss the Arabic speaking world. Much like all immigrant communities, the early Arab-American community was identified as a single entity - Syrian. Yet, there was an incredible amount of regional diversity within the community. Ship manifests and census records listed residents as Turk, Arab, Syrian, Armenian, Assyrian, and sometimes Asian. Little Syria fit right in, as Lower Manhattan was also home to communities of Jews, Italians, and the vestiges of slowly dispersing Germans. 

"Food and Foreigners in New York." Harper's Weekly, 1900. Courtesy of NYPL. Captions read: A Sausage Factory on the East Side, Habib Assi the Syrian Chef, Where the Polish Jews do their Shopping

A large number of immigrants from the Arab world were coming to the United State seeking wealth and fortune, with the intention of returning to their homelands happy, wealthy, and wise. Many others had heard stories of the grandeur of the United States from those who exhibited their wares or culture (or from those who were exhibited) at World’s Fairs in Philadelphia (1976), Chicago (1893), and St. Louis (1904). Regardless of place of origin or reason for immigration, the newcomers created a vibrant neighborhood that was the talk of many a tourist.

In 1892, the New York Tribune reported: “It was a buzzing trading center and middle eastern bazaar transplanted to the first ward where the North and East rivers meet… it was the wellspring of Syrian peddling in America.” The colony, a mix of both American and Syrian costume and food, became not only a cultural center but a commercial one as well. Merchants would rent row houses and fill them with imported fabrics and furniture, while sending out peddlers with carts to entice the shoppers who were both immigrants and Americans.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 Oct 1905.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter also took a stroll through Little Syria and, in October of 1905, reported on the wonders of foreign fruit: "Stands piled high with melons and onions, tomatoes and okra and cucumbers and queer looking vegetables that one never sees in American markets occupy a large portion of the sidewalk to nobody's discomfiture, apparently, the dark skinned Syrians to whom they belong smoking placidly in the doorways." The Syrian Business Directory was created to help catalog all of the commerce in the area. And it wasn't only English-language papers that reported on Little Syria, as Arabic newspapers also began pop up, the first being Kawkab Amerika, published in 1892. Kawkab Amerika was the first Arabic newspaper in the country. The Kawkab Amerika was closely followed by Al-Hoda, which would move from Manhattan to Brooklyn and then back to Manhattan and be one of the most read Arabic dailies in the country during the early 1900s. 

The community also had smaller, local papers like The Caravan, which the Brooklyn Collection has on microfilm. This paper, focusing on Bay Ridge in the 1950s and 1960s, ran both international stories and local happenings. The Caravan is a fantastic place to look for information about the day to day life of the community.

The Caravan, 15 July 1953.

As this is the Brooklyn Collection, let's go to Brooklyn. There were folks who moved across the river early on, but large development projects (the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, for one) spurred greater numbers to leave the neighborhood. What’s more, many of the Mother Colony’s residents had, for two or three decades, been growing steadily wealthy. It was time for a new promised land across the East River. The Mother Colony was not left unoccupied, however. Until the latter half of the twentieth century one could still find shops and restaurants harkening back to a time when the streets bustled with the newly arrived.

The Arab American National Museum (located in Michigan) has a traveling exhibit about Manhattan's Little Syria that will soon be a part of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The exhibit will run from October 1st of this year until the 9th of January, 2017. You've got a lot of time, so go see it!

Brooklyn’s community settled in Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights with Atlantic Avenue (between Court and Hicks Streets) as the main thoroughfare. Restaurants, butcher shops, and places selling exotic merchandise lined the street. In the 1950s and 1960s, Atlantic Avenue was said to be “the Syrian shopping center of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey.” As of 1939, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a popular destination for Arabic films and various radio stations had programs in Arabic. 

Most of the early Arab-American immigrants were Christian and Catholic. Brooklyn, the "Borough of Homes and Churches," had many Syrian and Lebanese houses of worship, including Our Lady of Lebanon. Our Lady of Lebanon was founded in a brownstone on Hicks street and is now located in the old Church of the Pilgrims on Remsen and Henry. The congregation is Maronite, an eastern sect of Catholicism. Our Lady of Lebanon was designated a cathedral in 1977 and is the seat of the Diocese of St. Maron of Brooklyn (which covers the entire eastern seaboard). And, as a fun aside, Our Lady of Lebanon will be the temporary home of the Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library during its time of transition.

Our Lady of Lebanon R.C. Church. Brooklyn Eagle, 1951. 

The community organized socially and politically during WWI and WWII. During the WWI the community organized a Boy Scout Troop and a branch of the Red Cross, both sited as a way to support the United States and declare their status as proud Americans. The Syrian American Club, Syrian Ladies Association, and Syrian Young Men's Association all organized parties and gatherings throughout the early and mid-twentieth century. 

And then there is the food! The famous Brooklyn institution Sahadi's opened in Manhattan in 1898 and has been selling Middle Eastern foods in Brooklyn since 1948. In 1945, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle profiled a confectionary shop run by Muneer Alwan and his four brothers, all immigrants from Damascus.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 May 1945.

The brothers made candy and sent half of every batch to service men overseas. Muneer talked about the close knit neighborhood: "Moslem-Christian understanding has never been a problem on Atlantic Ave. The Alwans are friendly with their next door neighbor, John Rizk, a Christian Syrian who is proprietor of a restaurant on Atlantic Ave. where the specialty is sheeshkabab, lamb on skewers, some think like the American barbecue." Atlantic Avenue, between Court and Hicks Streets, was said to be the one of the "largest Syrian business sections in the East." Hard to imagine a time before sheeshkabab. 

Fresh From Bakery. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1948. 

Urban renewal and rising rents forced many Syrians out of their Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights homes. Bay Ridge was quickly becoming the new center of community life, as development projects in the late 1950s had created a wealth of housing options and travel was easy via subway.

In 1924, with the Johnson-Reed Act, the United States severely limited immigration from Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. Syria, Palestine, and Turkey were all given quotas of 100. Thus, all immigration drastically slowed during the 1930s - early 1960s. In 1965, with the Hart-Celler Act, the United States lifted its quota system based on race, which allowed new waves of Middle Eastern immigrants to enter the country. They moved to areas in which their language and culture was already rooted: Bay Ridge and the surrounding neighborhoods. A key difference was the bulk of the new arrivals were Muslim. Thus, a new community began to grow and prosper, just as the previous had. 

New York City is a city of immigrants. We are diverse in language, religion, cultural customs, and dress. This is the month to celebrate that diversity and relish in the global experience we have every time we walk out the door.