Trying to Save Remnants of Arab Life in Lower Manhattan
In 1891, Yusuf Sadallah arrived in Lower Manhattan from the town of Baskinta, in the part of the Ottoman Empire that is now Lebanon. Going by the name of Joseph Sadallah, he set up a trading shop on Washington Street, where other immigrants from the Levant — Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians — had created a vibrant Arab quarter known as Little Syria.
Most residents were Christian, their loyalties divided only between St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church at 103 Washington Street and St. Joseph’s Maronite Church at 57 Washington Street, later at 157 Cedar Street.
Other villagers who had journeyed to New York had let those in Baskinta know: “There’s a great place to make money; you don’t have to worry about the Turks collecting taxes or drafting you into the Turkish army” — or words to that effect, said Mr. Sadallah’s great-great-grandson, Carl Anthony Houck Jr., who goes by Carl Antoun to stress his Lebanese roots.
Mr. Antoun’s great-grandfather, Antonio J. Sadallah, whose name at birth was Tanus, ran the family business — importing and exporting dry goods, notions and jewelry — at several locations along Washington Street. Much of their trade was with Central and South America. The family has kept some of the calling cards, ledgers, invoices, correspondence and ephemera from the early 20th century.
Mr. Antoun was born in 1991, a full century after his forebear arrived in Manhattan. But he talks about Little Syria as if he can recall it himself. “I always get a deep chill down my spine,” he said the other day outside what used to be St. George’s, near Rector Street. The building’s facade was designed by a Lebanese-American draftsman, Harvey F. Cassab; the church is now an official landmark.
“I kind of freeze in time,” said Mr. Antoun, a junior at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. “In the back of my mind, I envision peddlers from here down to the water. I see tenements, with mothers screaming out to their children to come to dinner.”
He has a lively imagination.
Much of Little Syria was demolished in the 1940s to allow construction of entrance ramps to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. What was left was bulldozed two decades later to make way for the World Trade Center.