For more than seven glorious decades, the area known as Little Syria stretched from what is today the Chinatown Gate, down Tyler and Hudson Streets, and over what is now Mass Pike to the South End, along Shawmut Avenue. Beginning in the 1890s, thousands of immigrants from present-day Syria and Lebanon, many of them Christians fleeing unrest and seeking better opportunities, filled these neighborhoods with families, stores, restaurants, music and of ambition. In 1930, there were as many as 15,000 Arab Americans in Boston.
“I loved this place,” said Nick Haddad, 80, whose Lebanese grandfather opened a Middle Eastern import business on Hudson Street in 1906 and who spent his childhood playing in the streets from the South End with children whose parents came from everywhere. “This neighborhood represents a big part of my life. »
The first arrivals worked as laborers, factory workers and peddlers. Some prospered by opening stores selling olives from giant wooden barrels, spices and fresh, fragrant pita bread. They prayed in Maronite, Melkite, and Orthodox Christian churches, which became so crowded that they had to expand, first to the South End, then to West Roxbury and beyond. They fought and died for their new country and created newspapers like Fatat Boston (The Boston Girl) to get news from their old country. Their community was close, but not closed: they shared their neighborhoods with Chinese Americans and Italian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants.
Then, after the Second World War, the financial crisis Success, highway construction, and so-called urban renewal that razed the neighborhood’s boundaries drove Little Syria residents southwest, to West Roxbury, Dedham, Norwood, and Walpole.
“When my parents moved us to West Roxbury, we were surrounded by people they had grown up with in Hudson, Harvard and Tyler,” Haddad said.
Until recently, the glory days of Little Syria existed mainly in the memories of those who lived there and in the stories passed down to their children. But two historians have produced a thorough and beautifully vivid history of the community.
Lydia Harrington, a postdoctoral scholar in Islamic architecture at MIT, and Chloe Bordewich, a postdoctoral fellow in public history at Boston University, have turned their shared fascination with the Old Quarter into a nuanced account of Arab-American life in Boston.
“It’s important that Bostonians see this as part of their history,” Bordewich said. “But we also wanted to provide something so that recently arrived Syrians could also get involved and discover part of their history. »
They painstakingly pieced together fragments of the diaspora, combing through photographs, diaries and historical documents, interviewing those who are still here to remember and the descendants of those who are not.
They found Boston lawyer Anthony Abdelahad, 42, by following the exploits of his grandfather Anton, a first-generation Syrian-American who grew up on Hudson Street in the South End, and became a famous Arab singer and oud player (He also owned a record store in the South End and a bakery in West Roxbury).
“Arab Americans have made incredible contributions to the American experiment,” Abdelahad said. “It was very gratifying to see Chloé and Lydia take up this torch and carry it on behalf of an entire community. »
The pair published their research in English and Arabic language journals, joined by the Massachusetts Historical Society has create an exhibition for this Arab-American heritage monthand have organized walking tours that meander from the Chinatown Gate to the Sahara Restaurant.
On a recent afternoon, they stopped with a group near a vacant lot on Hudson where a Middle Eastern grocery store once stood, and near a Chinese community education center that once was Denison Housea colonization house that educated immigrants, including the poet Khalil Gibran, who took art classes there. Gibran’s 1931 memorial service was held at Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon church, which moved several times before landing in its current location on Jamaica Plain. The former Maronite church became a Chinese Christian church and is now a pristine building at 78 Tyler St.
Above the Pike, the tour stopped at a crowded Peters Park, where a stone marker commemorates George and Sadie Peters, whose Arabic name was Boutros. Sadie was a neighborhood activist, like many in Little Syria, fighting to preserve their community against the efforts of a city armed with bulldozers and woefully mistaken about what made Boston great.
Fred Shibley spoke out against the city’s heavy-handed redevelopment tactics on the front page of the Mid-Town Journal, the South End newspaper he edited from 1938 to 1966. His Lebanese father had settled in what is now Chinatown at the turn of the last century and became a merchant, before to move to Union Park. in the south end. Other first-generation Lebanese Americans focused on education and entering the professions. Fred Shibley’s journey was different: according to a story from the South End Historical Society about his lifehe was a clown and clown, and spent time in prison for theft, before starting the Journal, a scandalous weekly full of neighborhood gossip.
“The First Amendment put bread on the table,” said Fred’s son, Richard Shibley, 64, who still lives in the old school on Rutland Street where the Journal was published. His father’s irreverent impulse to make noise was at odds with his people’s desire to blend in, he said.
“We had been persecuted under the Ottoman Empire,” Richard said. “People wanted to assimilate, keep their heads down and not be noticed. »
This view will be familiar to many immigrant families. This was certainly the case for my own Lebanese family, who tried to avoid trouble by keeping much of our culture hidden inside our homes, in a country not yet ready to welcome the unknown.
But walking the streets with Harrington and Bordewich, hearing stories of lives that mirror those of my own family – right down to the hawkers, parental ambitions and house moves – made me immensely proud. It is powerful to hear the lives of your people, in all their form and meaning, recognized as a vital part of history in the place you have chosen to call home.
“It’s really moving,” said Anthony Abdelahad, “to see these talented scholars… helping to revive the memory of a community erased by urban renewal.” This brought together many elements of this community.
This is why history is important.