Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Little Syria: NYC's Early Arab Community

Anyone who has been to the lower portion of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn or parts of Steinway Street in Astoria knows that NYC has a large Arab population. However, most of us are not aware of its origins, or culture.

The first major group of Arabs in NYC arrived in the latter part of the 19th Century and settled in an area near the current site of the Manhattan entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Most hailed from areas which are now part of the modern nations of Syria and Lebanon, and they soon became successful businesspeople. With the destruction of their area to make room for the tunnel entrance, many relocated to the Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn, opening shops along Atlantic Avenue. In time many moved on to Bay Ridge.

Probably the biggest misconception about these immigrants and their descendents has been about their religion. Although there has been an Islamic presence in NYC since the 19th Century, most of the early Lebanese and Syrian immigrants were either Catholics or members of various Orthodox churches. The Egyptians, of course, were typically Copts. The downtown Brooklyn area still features two of their churches, most notably Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral Although under the jurisdiction of Rome, the Maronites, like other Eastern Rite churches, have traditions which separate them from their Western Catholic brethren - such as married priests. Originally the Church of the Pilgrims, OLL's building was designed by Richard Upjohn, who also created Trinity Church Wall Street, and features doors salvaged from a sunken ocean liner! It is a must-see during any visit to Brooklyn Heights.

Probably the best-known fixture of NYC's Arab community is Sahadi's - Brooklyn's answer to Zabar's. Charlie Sahadi's family have the best selection of dried fruits and nuts anywhere- and at great prices. Even if you have no interest at all in Middle Eastern food, their collection of cheeses, Italian olive oils and other gourmet items makes Sahadi's a delight.


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