On a lovely October day, Joe Svehlak, a distinguished urban historian and licensed tour guide, immersed a group of Greeters in the history of Manhattan’s Lower West Side.
In the late 1880’s, Middle Eastern immigrants – mostly Syrians, Lebanese, and Armenians – started moving to the old narrow streets by the docks – west of Trinity Church at 79 Broadway and the Financial District. They would later be joined by Greek, Turkish, Slavic and Polish immigrants and by 1917 there was what Joe called “a Grand Melting Pot” of about 27 nationalities living in harmony.
Most immigrants worked as building cleaners, elevator operators, or in restaurants and cafeterias. They treasured the close-knit community where different ethnic groups lived and worked together so happily. They were proud of their homes, but were often victims of the government’s Eminent Domain law. This law allowed the government to tear down homes to make room for new construction. Residents often had just three days to pack and leave!
Joe is devoted to saving the few “remnant” buildings left from that era to preserve their memory and consciousness. So many historic buildings have been replaced by cold, massive office buildings.
Joe showed us what little history remains: a beautiful 1797 Federal-style townhouse on State Street, home to Mother Elizabeth Seton, the first native-born American Saint. We also saw the site of the old Battery Park where immigrants came for light and air and to enjoy the New York Aquarium. The Park deteriorated in the late 1930’s when Robert Moses, the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York City, built the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
We learned that in its day Washington Street was called “Little Syria.” It was the heart of the business district with pastry, linen, lingerie and silk shops, among others. Today just three early 20th century buildings are left: St. George’s Syrian Catholic church, a community house and a tenement building. As graceful as these structures are, they are greatly overshadowed by a looming 80-story office tower being built next to the church.
Joe wants these three buildings to be New York Landmarks – living reminders of an ethnic neighborhood that has almost all been lost. His passion for preservation is nothing less than inspiring.*