Little Syria is one of the newest and most bustling additions to New York’s international neighborhoods. Centered on Washington Street in lower Manhattan, Little Syria sits only a few blocks away from the Hudson River docklands. The community is small, but growing by leaps and bounds. In 1890, 300 Syrian families were counted on Washington Street; in 1904, a census will number the population at 1300.
Read an article on Little Syria from The New York Times, August 1899. (PDF)
Most New Yorkers assume that their new neighbors are Muslim, but in fact the vast majority of Little Syria’s denizens are Christians, from the cities and villages in the region of Mount Lebanon. Greater Syria is part of the Ottoman Empire, and a number of Little Syria’s residents have left their homeland in order to evade conscription into the Imperial army. But the larger reason for their immigration is purely economic. The rush to America began in 1876, when Syrian delegates visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and saw for themselves the opportunities to be had. They went home and spread the word, and young Syrian men have been flocking to America’s shores ever since. American missionaries in Syria often encourage their co-religionists to emigrate as well, providing them with letters of introduction written in English.
Once in America, a large percentage of Syrians choose the peddler’s life. Syrian pack peddlers range all across the United States, hawking their wares in cities as far-flung as Muskogee, OK and Mankato, MN. It’s a harsh life, but a lucrative one, allowing them to send money home to their relatives. A number of shops on Washington Street cater to the peddlers, filling their packs with goods offered on credit. Those who remain in Little Syria find jobs as factory workers and shopkeepers, restaurateurs and importers. Many with experience in Mt. Lebanon’s world-famous silk industry go to work in the New York textile mills—first as weavers, and then increasingly as overseers and owners.
The life of the Syrian immigrant is not without its comforts. Syrian-owned restaurants and coffee-houses provide a slice of home: the tastes of familiar food, the scent of narghile (water-pipe) smoke, and the sounds of backgammon and domino games. Kawkab Amrika (Star of America), New York’s first Arabic newspaper, is joined quickly by Al-Hoda (Guidance). And two new churches on Washington Street, St. Joseph’s Maronite Church and St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, serve the community’s two largest Christian denominations.