Emile Bustani Seminar: "Peddlers, Bootleggers, and Acrobats: An Urban Geography of Boston’s Little Syria"

Tuesday, November 07, 2023 at 4:30pm to 6:00pm


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"Peddlers, Bootleggers, and Acrobats: An Urban Geography of Boston’s Little Syria"

Chloe Bordewich
Postdoctoral Fellow, Jackman Humanities Institute/CDHI, University of Toronto

Lydia Harrington
Senior Curator, The Syria Museum, Syrian American Council

This talk will weave the history of the modern Middle East together with the urban history of Boston to tell the story of the city’s first Arabic-speaking community. Boston’s Little Syria, or Syriantown, thrived from the 1890s to the 1950s between present-day Chinatown and the South End. Yet hardly any traces remain. How did this neighborhood come to be and what happened to it? Immigrants from Ottoman Syria and Mount Lebanon fled blight, conscription, and poverty to make their way to Boston. Drawing on family and church archives, property maps, memoirs, and interviews with descendants, we will explore the spaces they inhabited, the lives they lived, and the imprint they left on Boston. From the 1950s onward, the geography of Arabophone Boston was redrawn as a result of the City’s urban renewal program, generational change, and the overhaul of federal immigration. As the present Syrian diaspora reaches around the world, the story of Boston’s Little Syria offers a window onto how an earlier wave of migrants shaped the places they landed.

Chloe Bordewich is a postdoctoral fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute and Critical Digital Humanities Initiative at the University of Toronto. Her current book project examines debates over public access to information in the 19th- and 20th-century Middle East, with a focus on Egypt. She received her PhD in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University in 2022. From 2022-23, she held a postdoctoral fellowship in public history at Boston University, researching the histories of Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent for the U.S. National Archives. Along with Lydia Harrington, she is co-founder of the Boston Little Syria public history project.

Lydia Harrington is historian and curator who specializes in Middle Eastern art and architecture and Syrian and Lebanese American history. She was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT in 2022-2023, where she revised her book manuscript on institutional architecture and educational reform at the end of the Ottoman Empire. She earned her PhD from Boston University’s History of Art and Architecture Department in 2022, having conducted research in Lebanon, Turkey, and the UK. In addition to work at the MIT Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she has curated exhibitions on Boston's Little Syria neighborhood at MIT and Massachusetts Historical Society.

The lecture will be livestreamed. 

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Events By Interest

Academic, Arts/Music/Film

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Public, MIT Community, Students

Events By School

School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS)


history, Middle East, international studies, Bustani, CIS, boston, Syria, little syria



Center for International Studies


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