Memorializing 9/11, Remembering “Little Syria”

Todd Fine co-founded the Save Washington Street campaign which seeks to preserve sites and stories of Arab American heritage in Lower Manhattan where a “Little Syria” once existed. An exhibit about Little Syria, developed, researched and produced by the Arab American National Museum is currently traveling around the country. Fine contacted the Incluseum this summer because he was seeking a larger audience of museum involved professionals to which he could express his opinion on the representation and inclusion of Arab Americans in New York’s September 11th Museum. A New York Daily News article addressing this was run in May.  We are happy to provide a venue for Fine to speak about his work, and are interested to learn more from readers who have a stake in weighing in on this complex and unfolding issue.

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Washington Street Cornerstone, Photo provided by Todd Fine.

Washington Street Cornerstone of the St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, with Latin Inscription, found in the rubble of the WTC South Tower. Photo provided by Todd Fine.

Scheduled to open in 2014, the National September 11 Memorial Museum, one of the largest and most visible museum projects in decades, shall offer a case study for museum studies scholars for many years to come. This museum engages the most fraught and impactful event of our time, has received massive federal support from all American taxpayers, and, through its inevitable notoriety, will likely have a significant effect on society and the broader culture.

The museum’s experienced curators have navigated a hyperpolitical environment with numerous emotionally (and financially) invested constituencies (victims’ families, politicians, real estate investors, nonprofit and corporate funders, members of the military, and various government institutions) and have engaged a series of endless, thorny questions. These include how to discuss responsibility for the attacks, how to display unidentified human remains, and how to suggest that visitors can learn from this disaster in a hopeful, yet honest, way. Given the pitfalls that the overall endeavor faces (including the uncertainty whether the United States has enough emotional and temporal distance to process a history of the attacks), some might question whether, beyond remembering the victims, creating a permanent exhibition to present a narrative and interpret meaning is a wise idea in the first place.

But assuming all of the direct issues can be effectively addressed, there are still important issues of inclusion to consider. Even though they had nothing to do with the attacks, Arab and Muslim Americans have suffered discrimination and profiling after September 11, and cascading events since 2001 have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world. Will the museum include the impact of discrimination and profiling on Arab and Muslim American communities in its narrative? Without a full historical context for the attacks there is a danger that the horrors presented will only emotionally reinforce visitors’ misguided assignment of blame for the attacks on these groups — even if this blame is racist, uninformed, or discriminatory. Does the museum have a responsibility to engage all communities and to tell stories that promote understanding and the humanization of “the Other”?

Indeed, few people realize that the approximate location of the World Trade Center was, from the 1880s until its destruction by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in the 1940s, the cultural and economic center of Arab life in the United States — mostly Christian, but with some Muslims. This fact was most vividly emphasized when the cornerstone of St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, with a Latin inscription, was miraculously found in the rubble of the South Tower, near the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Cedar Street.


Selling Cool Drinks in Syrian Quarter of Lower Manhattan, Photo provided by Todd Fine.

Under most circumstances, local historians have argued that the “Little Syria” neighborhood’s proximity to the World Trade Center should be seen as an “irrelevant coincidence.” The legacy of September 11 itself is increasingly having a frustrating impact on historical memory as developers are gambling on the real estate promises of the new World Trade Center “Campus” and the 9/11 Memorial, putting the handful of remaining historic buildings of the neighborhood at risk of demolition.

Several years ago, in 2010, local historians and preservation activists of the “Friends of the Lower West Side” community group approached Alice Greenwald, the director of the September 11 Memorial Museum, about the possible inclusion of the forgotten and fading multiethnic history of their neighborhood. They met with museum researchers in 2011, and these meetings were followed up in 2012 and 2013 by meetings and discussions with the museum by the “Save Washington Street” coalition of young activists.

Syrian Women in the Syrian Quarter of Manhattan. Photo provided by Todd Fine.

Syrian Women in the Syrian Quarter of Manhattan. Photo provided by Todd Fine.

In Spring 2013, however, the museum declared that it had no plans to mention “Little Syria,” even one sentence or one photograph, in its permanent exhibit section dealing with the history of the site (including the contemporaneous “Radio Row” electronics district), or in its section dealing with objects found in the rubble (where the church cornerstone – seen in the photo above – might conceivably be displayed). The leading Arab-American civil rights group, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, immediately responded to this decision with an inquiry letter to Memorial CEO and President Joe Daniels and to Museum Director Alice Greenwald (also asking about the conspicuous lack of Arabic-language brochures at the Memorial when around ten other world languages are covered).

Greenwald spent many years leading the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and since both museums deal with historic horrors, museum studies scholars could compare the two projects. The Holocaust Museum, however, in providing a full and deep historical context, goes out of its way to combat anti-German sentiment and to prevent antagonisms that could lead to new genocides. Since we are aware that the September 11 Museum is likely to be uncomfortable for the identities and self-esteem of Arab-American and Muslim-Americans, particularly young children, subtly incorporating the “Little Syria” narrative could be an elegant solution to humanize a marginalized group.

In a museum that is already so invested in “place,” the Little Syria history would offer an important narrative that affirms the sustaining values of New York City and the United States. Its world-famous writers, such as Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani, dedicated their lives to Arab-American relations, to informing the public about Islam, and to bridging cultures. Including a quotation from one of them on the wall of a final room of reflection could be a natural addition.

Museum studies scholars and museum professionals who are concerned about inclusivity have an opportunity to study and scrutinize the permanent exhibit decision-making of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. This “Little Syria” dispute hopefully can still be creatively resolved. However, if the dispute is dismissed it may indicate that there are additional exclusionary elements of the permanent exhibit, which run the risk of being discovered too late.

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Todd Fine is the co-founder of the Save Washington Street campaign and the founder and director of Project Khalid, an effort to celebrate the centennial of Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911). He serves as a historical and strategic advisor.  He is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard University and holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.  At Harvard, Mr. Fine worked for Samuel P. Huntington as a research assistant for two years on his book on American identity and immigration, entitled Who Are We? (Simon and Schuster, 2004). 


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