Joe Svehlak presents the history of the Syrian Quarter of Manhattan overlooking the present-day Battery tunnel during our first meeting — a documentary shoot for CBS News.

My Timeless Friendship with Joe Svehlak

When the Ottoman Empire began conscripting Christians to its Army in 1909, a flood of Syrians left their home for New York City, filling up Manhattan’s already burgeoning Syrian Quarter. Joe Svehlak would be born 31 years later and this author 76 years later, but the storied Syrian settlement in Manhattan would bring us together in 2018.

This image depicts the history of Arabic people in New York during the 1890s, and is part of Joe’s tour of the Syrian Quarter and his petition to designate the area as a historical mini-district.

Joe, a New York City tour guide, had spent nearly two decades petitioning the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate two buildings adjoining St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church as protected historical sites. Joe and the grassroots organizers he worked with had generated enough energy around this cause that it caught the attention of two award-winning producers, Liz Kineke and Jennie Kamin. They brought me in to film this story for CBS about Little Syria, where Joe led us around the sites.

Lily and I join Joe’s tour group November 16, 2021, where we learned, in part, about the Calvinist Blue Laws imposed by Peter Stuyvesant in his attempt to bring order to the unruly Dutch West India Company colony.

Of all the many Syrian contributions to New York in the last century, introducing me to Joe is my personal favorite. Joe gave us his whole tour — not at all satisfied to provide the producers the condensed version they had hoped for. Joe’s mother came from that neighborhood, and his tour included personal details about his family history as much as it revealed the written history of the Syrian Quarter.

A tour with Joe seems to make the modern structures around us melt away.

Joe’s voice pitches above his tour groups like a clear bell ringing out history and humanist ideals with a thin accent — both Brooklyn, with it’s lippy Os and flat Rs, and Slavic-American, with its long As and soft Ss. He is a walking icon of the city’s multicultural history. He talks to these people from all around the world, sharing a history he is always learning about.

Joe shows a tour group an original Dutch street map of New Amsterdam, whose roads still exist and form the downtown of present-day Manhattan.

Since then we’ve come together every few months for lunch at Junior’s Restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn. He tells me about the late love of his life, Albert, a world-class Opera singer, and I tell him about my hopes with my own love, Lily. He roots tirelessly for my work to make the news media more inclusive and diverse, and he tells me about his past lives on Wall Street in the 1970s, or as a messenger six decades ago. We love to examine how our respective places in the arc of history have colored our opinions. We talk history, politics, and civil rights.

People take an appreciative interest when they see us hanging out around Junior’s. He always tells them he’s my grandpa — then immediately tells them he’s kidding so he doesn’t have a lie on his conscience. I’d back him up either way.

Joe and I get together as often as we can at Juniors in Downtown Brooklyn. Joe gets the liver, and I get a pastrami Reuben almost every time.

Lily joins me for many of these get-togethers now, and Joe loves to talk about us as proof the future is hopeful (no pressure). It makes us feel truly special to be admired so graciously by such a hero.

His personal history is very much the history of my city, and it is a privilege to hear it from him first hand. But he’s also turned me on to some great historical books that we talk about when we get together. For Christmas one year, he gave me a rangefinder camera from the 1960s that I restored and use to practice my new hobby of black and white film photography.

Lily and I support the work Joe does to preserve New York’s history. Here we are examining the architectural flourishes that mark the journey these downtown buildings have taken across waves of different immigrant communities.

Joe has a contagious belief in the power of places. Suddenly you don’t see the trendy FIDI bistro, but the church that once stood in a medieval New World. He loves language and astutely observes how meanings change through time in phrases or street names, making for “aha” revelations through his tours. He is lively and quick-witted, achingly modest, and unfailingly sincere. He is both historian and activist, and his mind leaps effortlessly from a discussion about anti-semitism in the early Russian Empire to one about the undemocratic development of lower Manhattan at the end of the 20th century.

“The great thing about history is there’s always more to learn,” he says.

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I am a photojournalist from Brooklyn. www.russellmidori.com

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Russell Midori

Russell Midori

I am a photojournalist from Brooklyn. www.russellmidori.com

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