Immigration Nation: New York City Plans a Park to Celebrate its Historic “Little Syria” Neighborhood

New York City is set to honor its history of housing Syrian immigrants through the creation of a new, permanent park and artwork in the historic downtown neighborhood.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

Urban design holds a unique power in its potential to unite people of different faiths, ethnicities and income-levels. Strong city planning can promote inclusivity among thousands or even millions of different residents. Parks, especially, are free public spaces that embody these ideas of civil liberty, community and connection.

At a time when much of the world is focused on the fate of people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and immigration law is on everyone’s mind, a new project has emerged that serves to highlight how design can encourage tolerance and celebrate diversity. New York City, a metropolis founded by, built for and thriving off a massive immigrant population, has announced a proposal for a public park with huge relevance in light of the current political climate.

A plan of the proposed park; image via Untapped Cities

After nearly six years of planning, the city is set to honor its history of housing Syrian immigrants through the creation of a new, permanent park in the historic downtown neighborhood of Little Syria — a community that existed from the 1880s to the 1940s before Robert Moses built the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

Map of existing land uses in downtown Manhattan with site marked;image via Untapped Cities

Diagram of proposed park areas; image via Untapped Cities

Last week, the Parks Department and the Department of Cultural Affairs chose the winning proposal for a public art monument to go inside the 20,000-square-foot park, officially named Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza. Thanks to the city’s Percent for Art Program, French and Moroccan artist Sara Ouhaddou will create a stained glass art piece inspired by Arabic calligraphy to commemorate the neighborhood’s literary history.

Coinciding with the news, a traveling exhibition on Little Syria, courtesy of the Arab American National Museum in Detroit, Michigan, opened at the Metropolitan College of New York last week. Both the exhibit and the urban park project simultaneously link the past and present experiences of Syrian refugees into the United States.

Neighborhood boys playing stickball on Albany Street between Greenwich and Washington Street in 1946; photo courtesy John and Helen Fornazor via The Broadsheet

In an effort to escape the oppression of the declining Ottoman Empire and avoid military conscription, over 40,000 people from Greater Syria (present-day Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) emigrated to U.S. urban centers including Boston, Detroit and New York in the late 1800s.

The New York–based Syrians settled in the Lower West Side from Washington Street to Battery Park, quickly establishing the area as the nation’s capital of Arabic culture. A predominantly Christian population, this educated, multilingual community made its mark as an eclectic group of writers, poets, news editors, essayists and novelists. The group dispersed at the start of construction on the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and planning for the original World Trade Center.

The new park will help return the car-dominated space — pictured above — to pedestrians; image via The Broadsheet

Today, New York’s Syrian-Jewish population lives mainly off of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. But the recent decision to create a public park celebrating the lost Manhattan community of Little Syria sheds light on both the city’s diverse past and its willingness to continue to be a refuge for displaced immigrants.

The site, which will also serve as a pivotal pedestrian pathway from the 9/11 Memorial to Battery Park, is expected to be complete in 2019.

Images via Untapped Cities