feeling social: Syrian American clubs in New York
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 25, 2008
One of the many nice things about living in Brooklyn is the way in which the area’s rich history as a home for immigrants of all kinds continues to punctuate the present.
For example, we get a huge kick out of the Italian-American men’s club that sits two blocks up from our street, with its members faithfully putting out a big Italian and a big US flag whenever they gather to sit on the sidewalk and play boardgames, talk, and have a beer. (No, technically that isn’t legal – but who is going to police a couple of sweet old men?)
We also get a huge kick out of the fact that an organization founded by Syrian/Lebanese immigrants in the late 1800s is still going strong: the Syrian Young Men’s Association, now officially known as SYMA.
SYMA was just one of many organizations that Syrian immigrants founded in the various cities in North and South America where they began immigrating in the 1880s/90s – just like other immigrant groups. Societies gave people the opportunity to knit new social bonds, and to have an outlet for relaxation.
But these societies were also important for immigrants’ new homelands, because they allowed them to start putting down local roots. The Syrian Young Men’s Association, like many other organizations, was active as a social and civic organization rooted largely in New York. And in a post-2001 world, its nice to see that – judging at least from its New York TImes coverage – it was treated by other New Yorkers as a regular part of the city’s life.
SYMA and other Arab immigrant group events were listed in the New York Times from early on – like this mention in the the “City and Vicinity” section on March 18, 1896:
“The Syrian Young Men’s Association tonight, at Chickering Hall, will present the play “Andromache” in Arabic, using the translation made from the Greek of Sophocles by Adeeb Bay Izhac. The intention is to aid the suffering people of Armenia. The Association will also present three scenes from “Hamlet” in English. The tragedy of “Al-Amirat Trajla”, showing the conditions in Armenia during the recent massacres, will be given after about three months.”
(For those of you who know about the Armenian genocide of the 1910s, the above fundraiser may seem a bit oddly timed. There were several anti-Armenian pogroms in the 1890s, which spilled over into attacks on other minority communities as well.
They don’t seem to have been government-led, but the Ottoman government also doesn’t seem to have done much to stop them. Its an ugly moment in a much longer history of nearly five centuries in which the Armenian community was treated with respect and acceptance – and unfortunately, the brutality of the Armenian experience during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire has largely erased this earlier memory.)
The New York Times chronicled Syrian women’s club gatherings, the community’s charitable endeavors, and major events like the American Syrian Federation’s, another Brooklyn-based society, June 1928, hosting of Mexican “aviator” Emilio Carranza, who had flown from Mexico City to Washington, D.C.
According to the Times, Carranza was “the guest of honor last night at a reception given by the American Syrian Federation, at its headquarters at 103 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn. Borough President James J. Byrne made a short speech of welcome on behalf of the Borough of Brooklyn … Mr. Carranza, who replied briefly in English, expressed his thanks for the reception given him in Brooklyn, and thanked the Syrian Federation for last night’s affair. The Syrians in Mexico, he said, contributed a third of the money to pay for the expenses of his flight. A wrist watch and a scroll written in Arabic were presented to him.”
I know: flying from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. doesn’t seem quite so exciting today. But in the late 1920s long airplane flights were still relative novelties – and hosting Carranza must have been a social coup for the Federation. (And did you notice the role of the Syrian community in Mexico? Today, Mexico’s “Syrians” identify as Lebanese, and they are a wealthy, influential part of Mexican society – starting, of course, with Carlos Slim [Selim] Helou.)
In the 1960s, SYMA seems to have taken more of a citizens’ watchdog role, protesting gentrification plans that would have driven working and middle-class Arab American New Yorkers out of Brooklyn Heights. On October 2, 1962, the Times noted:
“The Syrian Young Men’s Association of Brooklyn said yesterday that a proposal to rehabilitate the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn Heights was an invitation to the area’s Syrian-Lebanese community “to commit ethnic suicide”.”
SYMA is still located in Brooklyn Heights: on Atlantic Avenue, which many people see as the center of Arab Brooklyn. (Of course, I hear that the real energy today comes from Bay Ridge, where more recent generations of Arab immigrants have settled – including a large community of Syrian Jews.) I’m hoping that H will join so I can experience this connection with history through him.
Hoping, but not holding my breath. As a 1992 Times article noted, SYMA today is a place “where the men are not necessarily young or Syrian, but do share a taste for the thick coffee that used to be available up and down Atlantic Avenue”. H considers himself still young, and he is not particularly enthused about identifying as Syrian. And nor does he drink coffee.
But for those of you who are interested in checking SYMA out: you can find its current address by googling “SYMA” and “Atlantic Ave”. And you can get a taste of the rich history of the Arab American communities in New York with the Google preview of A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City, an edited book published by the Museum of the City of New York.
The chapters come from papers delivered at a February 2000 conference that the Museum hosted in preparation for an exhibit on Arab American New Yorkers scheduled for November 2001. The book includes contributions from some very big names in the field.
(The exhibit was re-worked after September 11 and opened in Spring 2002. I saw it and … while well-intentioned, the exhibit was unfortunately quite disappointing. The historical artifacts – period newspapers, photographs, memoirs – were wonderful. But as my friend K noted, the exhibit’s message had disintegrated into nothing more than “Look, Arabs are American, too”. It might have been an important message at the time, but it did little justice to the real rootedness of Arab Americans in the city. Read the book – its much better.)