On a hot recent afternoon, lunch patrons enjoyed the shaded patio of a Lebanese restaurant on Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, as staff brought out plate after plate of dishes like shawarma and lahm bi ajeen, meat pies. pizza-like meat.
Anaheim’s ‘Little Arabia’ community finally hopes for an official designation
At a table sat Mysoon Mortada, on a break from work at a nearby social services agency. Mortada, who is Lebanese American, said she moved to Anaheim about six months ago from Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit that is arguably the largest Arab-American cultural center in the country.
This stretch of Brookhurst Street, she said, feels comfortably familiar. “I feel like I’m back in Dearborn where all my family is,” Mortada said. “I didn’t feel like I left, you know? I came back.”
For decades, this part of Brookhurst between Crescent and Katella Avenues was known informally as Little Arabia. About 100 businesses here cater to the Middle Eastern and North African diasporas of Southern California, attracting both residents and visitors: grocery stores, restaurants, hookah lounges and Islamic fashion boutiques, to name a few.
It is also a welcoming gateway for new immigrants and refugees, who can find social and legal services, as well as jobs.
Community advocates have lobbied Anaheim for years to give Little Arabia an official designation – like Little Tokyo or Little Saigon. These designations help promote local businesses and cultural identity in ethnic enclaves and typically involve signage identifying the neighborhood.
It hasn’t happened yet. But that could be the case on Tuesday, when the Anaheim City Council is expected to discuss, and possibly vote on, an official designation for this part of Brookhurst.
This is the first time the issue has been subject to a potential vote.
“About time, you know? said Ihab Elannan, owner of the terrace restaurant, Little Arabia Lebanon Bakery and Cuisine. “It’s time for us to have something to represent us.”
Elannan, an immigrant from Lebanon, said what a lot of people say here: that there are all kinds of “little ones” in Southern California, so why not point to Little Arabia? A short distance away are Little Saigonwhich straddles Westminster and Garden Grove, and Garden Grove’s recently named Orange County Koreatown.
“We would like to be known as Little Arabia, like everyone else,” Elannan said. “It’s our culture…I think we deserve it. As a culture, we deserve to have this.
Past efforts to establish Little Arabia
For those clamoring for a Little Arabia designation, it’s been a long slog. Defenders of the Arab-American community say there have been efforts of one type or another since the 1990s.
A more recent effort over the past decade has been led by the Arab American Civic Council, a grassroots civil rights group, which asked Anaheim residents about a Little Arabia designation last year, with help from UC San Diego. The group’s director, Rashad Al-Dabbagh, said a majority of residents polled supported the idea.
“This is symbolic recognition for the Arab-American community that has given so much to the city of Anaheim, but it will also bring many economic benefits to the city,” Al-Dabbagh said.
But he said until recently, before council member Jose Moreno put up the article calling for a ‘Little Arabia district’ on today’s agendathey got little traction from City Hall.
“There are a lot of excuses,” Al-Dabbagh said, “but we don’t know what the real reason is.”
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College who studies local politics in Orange County, said when it came to nominating Little Arabia, there was not so much vocal opposition as inaction. .
“It’s opposition by delay,” Balma said. “I couldn’t find any public opposition; the opposition comes from the board refusing to act, and their stalling tactics are, like… ‘let’s talk more to the community.'”
Balma referred to a recent request from council member Gloria Ma’ae, whose district includes Little Arabia, for the city to conduct further study of the area before moving forward.
A related movementAlso on Tuesday’s agenda is seeking “a study that would research the needs of the local community, engage all stakeholders, including the Arab-American business community, the non-Arab business community, business owners, area business and residents in order to analyze the different district options for the corridor.
Ma’ae did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The motion details a timeline that could take up to a year. Balma sees it as another example of the city’s inaction on Little Arabia.
“How much do we still need to know? said Balma. “This is not a new concern. This is not a new proposal. It has been 10 years since the community, and in particular business owners in this community, have called for this designation.
After a previous effort to put the Little Arabia designation on the city council’s agenda failed early last year, former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu told media in a statement that while “we love Little Arabia”, “as a large, diverse city we need to take a broader and more inclusive view when it comes to formal designations”.
But Sidhu is no longer on the council, after resign in May amid ongoing FBI corruption probe on the sale of Angel Stadium in Anaheim.
His place in Anaheim
Sidhu’s absence is one of the reasons Little Arabia supporters say they are optimistic they will win more support now ahead of Tuesday’s potential vote.
“The important thing for us right now is that it’s on the agenda,” Al-Dabbagh said. “And we’re hoping to get a ‘yes’ from everyone on the board.”
Council member Jose Moreno told LAist he would push for a vote at the meeting. He said the decision should be a no-brainer.
“I think of Little Arabia like I think of the stadium, the Honda Center, the resort,” Moreno said. “It’s an asset for the whole city, and we benefit from it like the whole city.”
Back on the terrace of the Little Arabia Lebanese bakery and kitchen, Mysoon Mortada was now finishing his lunch and preparing to return to work.
She said she was surprised to learn, after moving to Anaheim, that Little Arabia was not a “little” official.
“There’s Chinatown, there’s Little Italy, there’s Little Korea (Koreatown) in LA and all that, but why isn’t there Little Arabia yet?” she says.
Shortly after, after the lunch rush had ended, restaurant owner Ihab Elannan entered the terrace for a smoke break. He said he would like to see signs on local streets and highways, pointing people to Little Arabia.
“Anyone (who) drives, they will know that there is something (to) represent here the Mediterranean cuisine, the Mediterranean culture.”
But there’s more to business, he says.
“Besides, it’s something for us. We deserve to be…recognized, that’s all.
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