Honoring a forgotten neighborhood

| 31 Jan 2017 | 06:28

By Razi Syed

City officials and local activists have finalized the concept for a large-scale art installation that will be integrated into a planned park in Lower Manhattan to honor “Little Syria,” a diverse former neighborhood that existed in the early 20th century in what’s now Tribeca.

On Jan. 25, the Department of Cultural Affairs convened a panel to select the proposal from four finalists. Sara Ouhaddou, a French artist of Moroccan descent, was chosen for a concept she proposed of using asphalt and stone to display text from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet.”

Her installation will be incorporated into the design of the park, which will join two small landscaped open spaces, Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza and Trinity Plaza, and is located south of the World Trade Center. It’s expected to provide more than 20,000 square feet of park space.

Preliminary plans for the park include plants and trees associated with the Mediterranean and the motif of different types of climates, like forests, desert and plains to symbolize immigration, along with Arabic elements, said Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Historical Society, which advocates for the preservation of Little Syria’s history.

“The Prophet” text will be presented in an alphabet Ouhaddou created by fusing Arabic typography and geometric shapes. “It gives you something very abstract that you can’t read if you don’t have the key,” Ouhaddou said. “But at the same time, all my work is about symbols and language. My struggle was about how to create a universal language with symbols, to create meanings with symbols.”

The symbols will be placed throughout the entire park, requiring an aerial view to see the work in its entirety, Ouhaddou said. It will be her first installation outside of Morocco.

Ouhaddou will receive a $30,000 design fee and will work with the parks department and the architect to incorporate her design into the park, which Fine said is slated to be completed at the end of 2018.

Kendal Henry, director of Percent for Art, the city’s public arts program, said artists were asked for proposals that referenced the literary heritage of Little Syria, which formed the heart of Arab-American society in the early 20th century.

At the start of the 1900s, Little Syria was a thriving community of Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and other immigrants who ran shops and lived in the Lower West Side of Manhattan on Washington Street, from Battery Park to around Rector Street.

Little Syria developed an active journalism and literary scene, Fine said. The linotype machine was first modified for Arabic characters in Little Syria and the neighborhood was the site of the first Arabic-language periodicals.

However, by the 1940s, when construction began on the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, much of the neighborhood was destroyed as buildings were razed to make way for entrances to the tunnel.

Three buildings comprise the final physical vestiges of Little Syria that are still standing: the downtown community house at 105-107 Washington Street, 109 Washington Street and St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church.

The church was designated a city landmark in 2009, but activists have been unsuccessful in advocating for the other two structures to be given the same protected status, Fine said.

“One of the reasons we’re so focused on this art project is the difficulty of protecting these buildings in light of all of the real estate boom — there’s so much money at stake,” Fine said. “We’re fearful that these last buildings on the Lower West Side will be destroyed.”

Despite finalizing plans for the homage to Little Syria just days before President Donald Trump signed an executive order limiting the flow of refugees from seven countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Fine said the current political climate wasn’t relevant.

“This is something that I see as beyond politics,” Fine said. “Politics are maybe four-year questions or news cycle one-day questions; the questions that these poets engaged are thousand-year questions.”

Fine said he was pleased to have gotten widespread support from the city for public art to honor Little Syria. “The historians have been working on this and advocating it for a long time,” he said. “And sometimes, when it comes to something involving Arabic language or Arab-Americans, we’re told things are impossible, that they won’t happen.”

“But this did happen, and it’s going to happen,” Fine said. “It’s a testament to the diversity, and just the amazing city that is New York.”