Little Syria in downtown NYC

In a beautiful example of the city as palimpsest concept, The New York Times has uncovered the Arab history of the area where the controversial mosque is to be built. There has been a major furore about this planned house of worship, with both Mayor Bloomberg and President Barack Obama weighing in on the side of letting it get underway. Others believe its location, two blocks from the World Trade Centre site, is inappropriate.

It turns out that the street was once at the "heart of New York's Arab world" and known as "Little Syria", although the majority of its Syrian and Lebanese residents were Christians. Nonetheless, it was known for the "fragrance of strong coffee in the air, of sweet figs and tart lemons, of pastries that remind buyers of childhoods in Damascus and Beirut", and Arabic signs that read " "Rahaim & Malhami," "Noor & Maloof" and "Sahadi Bros."

The reporter David Dunlap writes: "it is worth recalling the old sights and sounds and smells of Washington Street as a reminder that in New York -- a city as densely layered as baklava -- no one has a definitive claim on any part of town, and history can turn up some unexpected people in surprising places".

It is exactly this kind of sentiment that provides strong reasons for allowing the mosque to be constructed. In cities where a range of nationalities live in close quarters, residents learn not to just tolerate each other's differences but to enjoy them. One of the greatest things about New York is to be able to walk across the city and feel like you are walking across the world.

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