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U.S. scholars seek mention of lost 'Little Syria' in 9/11 museum

A visitor to the 911 Memorial plaza peers through glass windows into the 911 Memorial Museum, which is under construction, at the World Trad
A visitor to the 911 Memorial plaza peers through glass windows into the 911 Memorial Museum, which is under construction, at the World Trad

By Victoria Cavaliere

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Before construction began on the World Trade Center in the 1960s, a vibrant Arab-American community lived and worked in the shadow of what would become the Twin Towers, the two New York skyscrapers destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

As Wednesday's 12th anniversary of the attacks draws near, local historians are asking the September 11 Memorial Museum to include a reference to the neighborhood, known for more than 50 years as "Little Syria," in its permanent exhibit.

"There's a whole section of the museum dedicated to the construction of the towers and the history of the area around the site," said Todd Fine, the historical director of Save Washington Street, a group fighting to landmark several Little Syria buildings. "But there's no mention of the different ethnicities that used to live in the area, including Greek, Lebanese and Syrian."

Fine said he believes a "brief mention" of the neighborhood would lend context to the narrative of the World Trade Center, the attacks and the experience of Arab and Muslim Americans.

The towers, which ranked as the world's tallest buildings when they were completed in the early 1970s, were destroyed by a pair of hijacked jets in 2001, in the coordinated attack that also struck the Pentagon. The attack killed about 3,000 people and left the United States on a heightened state of alert.

A hub of manufacturing and the import-export trade from the 1880s to the late 1940s, Little Syria was the first Arab-American neighborhood, Fine said. Stretching for about 10 blocks along the western side of lower Manhattan, Christian and Muslim immigrants lived quietly among the wider ethnic tapestry of New York City.

The legacy of Little Syria persists, buried underground. A cornerstone of a Lebanese church, emblazoned with a cross, was unearthed in late 2002 by construction crews clearing rubble about a block from the site of the fallen Twin Towers. Old phone and property records show that an Iraqi cigarette company existed in the 1930s on what later became the location of the South Tower.

With international attention focused on possible Western military intervention in Syria's civil war, Fine said Little Syria should serve as a reminder that Arab immigrants to the United States "fought for freedom and for overcoming sectarianism ... and they used that freedom to advocate for strong ties with the Arab world."

Little Syria was slowly broken apart by city projects, including construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel linking Manhattan and Brooklyn, and eventually the World Trade Center.

Fine said he has made several pitches to museum officials to include a summary or a photograph of the neighborhood in its exhibit, but has so far been turned down.

Museum officials did not respond to a request for comment.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

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