Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza, Without Artwork or Tribute to Little Syria, Now Open to the Public

 

 

 

The Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza opened to the public this month. The project creates a new park by combining two existing plazas, rerouting traffic exiting from the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, and removing excess roadbed along Greenwich Street.

The project was originally designed to include the first public monument to early Arab immigrants in New York, commemorating the influential writers and poets associated with Little Syria. We were surprised, and disappointed to see, that it did not.

The location is at the convergence of Trinity Place, Greenwich Street, Edgar Street (known to be the shortest street in Manhattan), and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel Exit, which is the former neighborhood known as Little Syria, whose immigrant community was displaced with the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in 1953.

Illustration Image proposed for Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza by artist, Sara Ouhaddou for Percent for Art

The Department of Cultural Affairs of New York City, through its Percent for Art Program, issued a call for artists to submit plans for artwork that would recognize and honor the history of the downtown neighborhood known as Little Syria. The winner, French-Moroccan-artist, Sara Ouhaddou, was announced. She submitted a plan of what was to grace Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza, using Arabic calligraphy in asphalt and stone.

Illustration Image proposed for Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza by artist, Sara Ouhaddou for Percent for Art

In the end, the commemoration to Little Syria succumbed to lengthy delays, and somehow ~ evaporated altogether, leaving us with the Elizabeth H. Berger Park, without the tribute. In spite of this omission, let us look back at the rich history that can not be omitted ~ Little Syria.

In 2017, the New York City Department of Records held the exhibit, Little Syria: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy at Metropolitan College of New York. Below are a few images from that exhibition, which was a pictorial timeline of the thriving community that existed from the 1880s to the 1940s.

Exhibit, Little Syria, New York from 1880-1940

 

 

 

The mostly Christian Syrian/Lebanese immigrants settled in the Lower West Side.  Educated and multilingual, it became a hub for writers, poets, newspaper editors, essayists, and novelists of Arab descent, and it is where the Pen League was formed.

Take a look at this wonderful YouTube video, How We Remember, on the history of Little Syria on Washington Street (below).

The new Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza Park will transform the area into a “village green,” dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Berger, who initiated the planning for this project. Berger, the former president and C.E.O. of the Alliance for Downtown New York, was a champion of Lower Manhattan where she lived and worked for 30 years.

The $6.6 million project was funded by a $3.5 million allocation from Mayor Bill de Blasio, $300,000 from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and $2.8 million from the New York City Council. However, the tribute to Little Syria was eliminated along the way.

Read an interview with the artist in Arab News, April 2020.

Descendants of the original group of immigrants in Little Syria can still be found in this neighborhood today. Three remaining structures still stand and tours of this historic area are given by the Washington Street Historical Society.

Check out Poets in the Park Monument and Syrian Colony History.

Check out “Memory of a Stranger: The Story of the Syrian Quarter and the Pen League Writers” on Soundcloud.