The Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan

My eyes quickly scan the spines of books lining the overburdened shelves, stacked and piled with patient tomes. The letters are familiar, my mind registers them as English, however the words are Turkish. My brain struggles to make sense of the jumbled script and forces my eyes to settle on words I can understand. New York City Guide.

This is no ordinary guide to New York City, the greying hard cover, weathered binding and strained spine reveal its age. Instinctively I turn to the verso to find it is a 1939 print. While Martin is methodically searching through shelves and amassing his own collection of books, I settle into a chair on the dusty 4th floor of Simurg Bookstore. I skim the table of contents and flip to the index searching for any indication of Muslims living in Lower Manhattan.

I’ve read contemporary studies, newspapers and opinion pieces of the evidence supporting the existence of places such as Little Syria. The case for Muslims being a part of New York’s unique tapestry has been made. However, at times I need the evidence to manifest itself to me – to appear in a 1939 guidebook. I need for the rosy fragrance of deteriorating pages to invade my senses, to witness acidity yellowing the pages, to feel the strain of cradling a heavy book on my wrists. I want to read paragraphs, uninhibited by an author’s interjections, on the Muslims of New York.

At a time when hotels were rented for $2.00 a night, subway fare cost 5 cents, and traveling via steamship was normal, baklava was being sold on the street corners of Lower Manhattan.

In the market section, comprising a world of its own, is the Syrian Quarter, established in the late 1800’s at the foot of Washington Street from Battery Place to Rector Street. A sprinkling of Turks, Armenians, Arabs, and Greeks also live here. Although the fez has given way to the snap-brim, the narghile has been abandoned for cigarettes, the coffee houses and tobacco and confectionery shops of the Levantines still remain.

Using the same methods and types of implements as native Syrian bakers, the confectioners make delicious sweets such as baclawa (chopped walnuts or pistachios, wrapped in forty layers of baked dough of gauze-like thinness flavored with goat’s milk butter and drenched in honey), knafie (twisted hank of fried dough with a core of chopped pistachios flavored as baclawa), sweet-sour apricot paste sprinkled with pistachios strings of walnuts dipped in grape syrup, and “Syrian delight” scented with attar of roses. Restaurants feature shish kebab (spit-broiled lamb) and rice cooked in salted vine leaves, and furnish narghiles upon request. Other neighborhood stores sell graceful earthen water jars; brass, silver, and pewter trays; tables inlaid with mother of pearl; brass lamp shades fringed with variegated beads, and Syrian silks of rainbow hues. (p. 76)

Flipping between the index and the text, my fingers interlaced with the pages, I learn that in addition to Syrians residing in Lower Manhattan they also lived in Brooklyn.

[I]n the Red Hook vicinity there are many Arabs and Syrians. It is anomalous that Brooklyn, the borough of homes and churches, should have some of the worst slums (Williamsburg, Brownsville, Red Hook) of the nation, yet such is the case.” (p. 433)

Concerning South Brooklyn:

Here are Erie and Atlantic basins, the Todd and United Shipyards, the busy State Barge Canal Terminal, and miles of freight railway tracks. Sailors from a hundred foreign ports fill the bars and rooming houses, and the prevailing atmosphere of a great international seaport is increased by the Syrian shops and coffee houses with their Arabic signs, on Atlantic Avenue. (p. 463)

Finally, on diverse Brownsville:

Brownsville extends from Ralph Avenue to Junius Street, between Liberty and Hegeman Avenues. With more than two hundred thousand people dwelling in its 2.19 square miles, it is the most densely populated district in Brooklyn. The population is predominantly Jewish. A large group of Negroes lives on Rockaway Avenue, Thatford Avenue, and Osborn Street between Livonia and Sutter Avenues. The only Moorish colony in New York is on Livonia Avenue between Rockaway and Stone Avenues. Italians live in the northern section of Brownsville; and on Thatford Avenue near Belmont is a small Arabian and Syrian quarter.” (p. 498)

Entranced, I continued to search. What else could I find? And what exactly was this treasure I had found?

A few months later, and back in the states I learned that the guidebook I stumbled upon in Istanbul is only one of an impressive series of books, all part of The American Guide Series – the first guidebooks to cover the states and regions of the United States. This warranted a trip to the library where we picked up a few more books on the guidebook series and the program that started them. In the mid 1930’s and in response to the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the New Deal. The WPA was enacted to employ millions of workers in public works projects. One of the more creative WPA projects was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP); this division was created to support written work and writers during the Depression. The Federal Writers’ Project relied upon struggling writers to document the peoples and places of the United States. Many notable writers held modest careers as FWP writers, including Studs Terkel, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston. More can be found on the WPA and the Writer’s Project in Soul of a People (book and documentary). The American Guide Series and the research that went into it ended up being an incredible anthropological study of the American people. I found that the New York City Guide is the companion volume to New York Panorama, a broader view of the city’s life and history.

The Panorama provided even richer details of the early immigrants.

Of the three near-Eastern groups, the Syrians have the largest population in the city, numbering 30,000 throughout greater New York. The Armenians come next with 22,000, while the Turks in New York number only about 300.

Only 1,000 of the city’s Syrians live in Manhattan, along Washington Street between Morris and Rector Streets. The largest Syrian colony lies between De Graw and State Streets, running from the East River to Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. A smaller settlement has grown up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn.

The Turks are settled mainly along Rivington and Forsythe Streets in Manhattan.

Armenians and Syrians in the city are almost without exception Christian, the former adhering to the Gregorian Church while the latter have formed a number of sects related to the Greek Orthodox and the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches. St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church at 57 Washington Street, best known Syrian church in the city, conducts services in Syrian.

The Turks are exclusively Mohammedans. The only real mosque in the city, at 108 Powers Street in Brooklyn, claims most of the devout. Some belong to the Mohammedan Unity Society at 67 West 125th Street. (p. 117)

In many ways, Michael Gomez says it best, “arguments are necessarily more tentative than conclusive…” (Gomez 1998, 60). Despite the hopes I once held for Muslim Syrians in Lower Manhattan, a mere two sentences on the Turks has abated my disheartenment. How appropriate is it then that I found the New York City Guide tucked away on a dusty shelf in Istanbul. Somewhere in the pages, interspersed between the lines lies a fleeting truth. I am caught between discerning facts and waiting for unanticipated discoveries, clinging to the fine details. Culling for the truth and always hoping for something more, these small nuggets of information keep the search alive.

Gody, Lou, Chester D. Harvey, and James Reed, eds. 1939. New York City Guide. New York: Random House.

New York Panorama. 1938. New York: Ramdom House.

Michael Gomez. 1998. Exchanging Our Country Marks. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

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3 thoughts on “The Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan

  1. Pingback: Ernest Goes to (Post-)Ottoman Istanbul, 1924-26 | Islamicana

  2. Pingback: Mecca Temple in NYC | Islamicana

  3. Pingback: New York’s First Mosque? | Islamicana

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