If you know where to look, you can see what is left of it.
Markers on two Chinatown corners memorialize Thomas Karem and John Lufty, killed in World War I. On Shawmut Ave. in the South End, there is the home of the old Sahara Syrian Restaurant, a once-glamorous nightspot shuttered for more than 50 years, but still stubbornly defying gentrification. And the Syrian Grocery, which held on the longest, and appears to have been defeated by the pandemic, its coffee pots gathering dust in a darkened window.
They’re remnants of what was once a thriving Arab American enclave in Boston, a part of the city’s history that has been largely lost, except to those whose families built it over a century ago.
For more than seven glorious decades, the area known as Little Syria stretched from what is now the Chinatown Gate, all the way down Tyler and Hudson streets, and over what is now the Mass Pike into the South End, along Shawmut Avenue. Starting in the 1890s, thousands of immigrants from present-day Syria and Lebanon, many of them Christians fleeing unrest, and seeking better opportunities, filled these blocks with families, stores, restaurants, music, and ambition. By 1930, there were as many as 15,000 Arab Americans in Boston.
“I loved it there,” said Nick Haddad, 80, whose Lebanese grandfather opened a Middle Eastern import business on Hudson Street in 1906, and who spent his childhood playing on South End streets with kids whose parents had come from everywhere. “That neighborhood is a big part of my life.”
The earliest arrivals worked as laborers, factory hands, and peddlers. Some prospered, opening stores that sold olives from giant wooden barrels, spices, and fragrant, fresh pita bread. They worshiped at Maronite, Melkite, and Orthodox Christian churches, which grew so crowded they had to expand, first into the South End, then into West Roxbury and beyond. They fought and died for their new country, and started papers like Fatat Boston (The Boston Girl) for news of their old ones. Their community was tight, but not closed: They shared their neighborhoods with Chinese Americans, and Italian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants.
Then, after the Second World War, financial success, highway construction and so-called urban renewal that razed the edges of the neighborhood drove the residents of Little Syria 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 on Hudson, Harvard, and Tyler,” said Haddad.
Until recently, Little Syria’s glory days existed mostly in the memories of those who lived there, and in the stories handed down to their children. But two historians have produced a deeply-researched and beautifully vivid history of the community.
Lydia Harrington , a postdoctoral fellow in Islamic architecture at MIT, and Chloe Bordewich, a postdoc in public history at Boston University, have turned their shared fascination with the old neighborhood into a nuanced account of Arab-American life in Boston.
“It’s important that Bostonians think about this as part of their history,” Bordewich said. “But we also wanted to contribute something so that recent Syrian arrivals can engage and see part of their history, too.”
They have painstakingly gathered up pieces of the diaspora, searching through photographs, newspapers, and historical records, interviewing those who are still around to remember, and the descendants of those who are not.
They found Boston attorney 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 Arabic singer and oud player (He also owned a record store in the South End, and a bakery in West Roxbury).
“Arab Americans have made such an incredible contribution to the American experience,” Abdelahad said. “It has been very gratifying to see Chloe and Lydia pick up this torch and carry it forward on behalf of a whole community.”
The pair have published their research in English and Arabic language journals, joined with the Massachusetts Historical Society to create an exhibit for this Arab American Heritage month, and have led walking tours that wind from the Chinatown Gate to the Sahara Restaurant.
On a recent afternoon, they paused with a group by an empty lot on Hudson where a Middle Eastern grocery once stood, and by a Chinese community education center that was once Denison House, a settlement house that educated immigrants, including poet Kahlil Gibran, who took art classes there. Gibran’s memorial service in 1931 was held at Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon church, which moved several times before landing in its current spot in Jamaica Plain. The former Maronite church became a Chinese Christian church, and is now a blank building at 78 Tyler St.
Over 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, as were many in Little Syria, battling to preserve their community against the efforts of a city armed with bulldozers, and woefully misguided about what made Boston great.
Fred Shibley railed against the city’s blunt-force redevelopment tactics in front page editorials in the Mid-Town Journal, the South End paper he ran 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, eventually moving to Union Park in the South End. Other first-generation Lebanese Americans were focused on education and entering the professions. Fred Shibley’s path was different: According to a South End Historical Society story on his life, he was a tumbler and clown, and spent time locked up for robbery, before he started the Journal, a scandalous weekly full of gossipy neighborhood tales.
“The First Amendment put bread on the table,” said Fred’s son Richard Shibley, 64, who still lives in the former school on Rutland Street where the Journal was published. His irreverent father’s impulse to make noise was at odds with his people’s desire to blend in, he said.
“We’d been subjected to persecution under the Ottoman Empire,” Richard said. “People wanted to assimilate, to keep their heads down and not be noticed.”
That view will be familiar to many immigrant families. It was certainly true of my own Lebanese family, trying to avoid hassle by keeping much of our culture hidden inside our homes, in a country not yet ready to embrace the unfamiliar.
But walking the streets with Harrington and Bordewich, hearing stories of lives that mirror my own family’s — right down to the peddlers, parental ambitions, and relocations — made me enormously proud. It is powerful to hear your people’s lives given their full shape and meaning, recognized as a vital part of history in the place you have chosen as home.
“It really is so moving,” said Anthony Abdelahad, “to see these talented academics …help revive the memory of a community that was erased by urban renewal. It has brought back together a lot of pieces of this community.”
This is why history matters.