Art to Honor Downtown's Arab-American Literary Past Faces Questions

Rendering of sculptural abstract "letters," designed by Sara Ouhaddou, proposed for installation on the eastern edge of Elizabeth H. Berger Park. NYC Parks Dept.

Apr. 13, 2023

It has been six years since artist Sara Ouhaddou won a competition to commemorate the literary heritage of Lower Manhattan’s long-vanished Arab community called “Little Syria.” The winning proposal was designed for Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza, a small park at Trinity Place and Edgar Street, then due for reconstruction. 

The redesigned park, named for the late former president of the Downtown Alliance, was completed in 2021, but Ouhaddou’s elaborate vision for it now faces questions.

Titled “Rabitah: Poets in the Park,” the proposed installation includes four 11-foot-long mosaic panels, a 40-foot-long mosaic seating-wall back, and a sculpture of invented “letters,” the tallest 7-feet high. The panels and seating back would be inscribed with “poems” written in Ouhaddou’s made-up letters, which correspond to the actual Arabic alphabet. The French-Moroccan artist describes her abstract characters as “at the crossroads between the literary Arabic alphabet and Islamic geometry.” The sculptural lettering would similarly be unreadable. (Translations will be on a separate panel.)

The installation, sponsored and privately funded by the  Washington Street Historical Society, is supported by the Parks Department. But it needs the approval of the city’s Public Design Commission and, before that, Community Board 1. 

“We hope you will agree that this is not only an enhancement of the cultural landscape of Lower Manhattan but also a commemoration of an important piece of New York history that has been lost and now re-found,” Linda Jacobs, the Society’s chair, told CB1’s Waterfront, Parks & Cultural Committee last month. “Although the buildings that housed the Syrians in the 19th century are long gone their poetry remains as the lasting legacy.”

The neighborhood, largely demolished in the 1940s to make way for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, was once the epicenter of the country’s earliest and largest Arab-American communities. Ouhaddou’s work would be meant to celebrate the poets and writers of the Pen League, Jacobs said, a group first formed in 1916 and reconstituted in 1920, that included a number of prominent Arab-American writers, among them Khalil Gibran and Ameen Rihani.

The committee had no issue with honoring the neighborhood’s Arabic history in the park, but the scale of it, for one, gave them pause. 

“It’s a very long and large and comprehensive-looking series of objects versus something that could be, maybe, a little less,” said committee member and CB1 co-chair Alice Blank. 

“I’m concerned that it will convert the park into an art installation rather than a park and it’s going to just overwhelm the park,” said Morton Minsley, a board member and parent at PS 150, the newly opened school across the street.

Committee member Bruce Ehrmann called the project “spectacular,” on one hand, but said he was “a little bit abashed” by the size of it for a small park. In addition, he said, “I think a lot of people will have difficulty understanding the meta meaning of it. But then, who understands conceptual artists anyway?”

Todd Fine, a scholar of Ameen Rihani and a local activist, began goading the city for a monument at the site back in 2011. A founder, but no longer a member, of the Washington Street Historical Society, he expressed his own reservations about parts of the proposed project. 

“There’s going to be a question about whether NewYork City is truly embracing Arabic and Arabic language by not using traditional Arabic calligraphy, by not choosing something that Arabic speakers could even read.”

“Be aware,” he added, “that it is a potential controversy.”

Because the project raised so many questions, the committee chose to delay a vote and will reconsider it at its April 24 meeting.