Preservation, Planning and Process: Manhattan’s Little Syria

Barbara Knecht's picture

Hidden in plain sight on Washington Street, just north of Rector Street, in lower Manhattan is an endangered piece of history. Three small privately owned buildings that I learned about during a walking tour in Saturday 29 October's freak snowstorm.  Each of the buildings is of individual interest and together they represent the little known story of people who lived in the neighborhood in the 19th and 20th century when the shoreline was a couple of blocks to the south and west.

The City of New York grew from this neighborhood.  By the early 1800's there were grand waterfront houses such as the Watson House on State Street across from South Ferry, and mansions along Greenwich Street.  The three buildings on Washington Street are not that old and perhaps not that grand. 

The oldest structure, 103 Washington, was built in 1812, but gained its current landmarked façade in 1925, the same year the completion of the adjacent Downtown Community Center at 107 Washington was celebrated by Governor Al Smith and Mayor Jimmy Walker.  The last of the three buildings, 109 Washington Street is a tenement, probably built towards the end of the 19th century and continuously inhabited as a residence ever since.

What few people know is that Washington Street was the heart of "Little Syria," a thriving neighborhood of 3,000 people around the turn of the 20th century.  Similar to their counterparts on the Lower East Side, the residents of the Lower West Side were skilled craftsmen, traders and merchants, and dock and service workers.  They were writers and printers and intellectuals. They built houses of worship like the landmark Saint George Melkite Church at 103 Washington Street. 

The neighborhood had other histories, of course, before it's heydey as little Syria at the close of the 19th century and into the 20th century.  But the evidence that currently exists is from that era and tells the story of a neighborhood and its luminaries such as Ameen Rihani who published the first Arab-American novel in 1911 or the Mokarzel brothers who invented the Linotype machine for Arab characters and the Pen League, the Arab American Literary society eventually led by Khalil Gibran.

And those three buildings tell the story of planning and development in New York.  They are within sight of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, a Robert Moses project that took down the better part of the neighborhood, hastening the relocation of the Arab American community to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.  It is within sight of the World Trade Center which similarly ripped through the neighborhood in the 1960's.   And was, of course, the site of a devastating attack that is now remaking the neighborhood once again.

People rebuild cities all the time; they destroy and renew constantly, deciding what is sacred, what is past useful life, and what will bring better profit or use in another form.  At the moment, the vacant lot on the corner of Rector Street to the south of the church façade at 103 will soon be a 50-story hotel.  The lot to the north of the tenement at 109 is also cleared and being used as a staging site for WTC construction.  The owners of that parcel own the Downtown Community Center, the central building of the three.   The pressure for change is enormous. 

This scenario is repeated throughout our cities all the time.  People value different aspects of urban opportunity and each negotiates the systems and regulations and public opinions to promote their own causes and interests.  My own bias in this case is clearly on the side of preservation.   The reasons are spelled out eloquently by many writers who can be found through the links below. 

But here I mean to take a step back from making this specific case to suggest that our processes and tools for development decisions are inadequate and unnecessarily contentious.  We practice "right-full" development when we might instead practice negotiated development.  Instead of avoiding people who may disagree, the time has come for urban governments to imagine a collaborative development process that convenes and negotiates to a decision.  Perhaps that is too radical, but the public hearing and public comment processes have collapsed into mutual cynicism.  We need a new process built in the genuine interests of a city, a neighborhood and people.  Ultimately development isn't about buildings, it is about human beings. 

For more information on Little Syria and the three Washington Street Buildings:

Save Washington Street

Downtown Community Center

Place Matters 109 Washington

St George Melkite landmark

 

 

Barbara Knecht is director of design at the Institute for Human Centered Design (formerly Adaptive Environments), a non-profit organization committed to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.

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