After Years Of Community Efforts, Will Anaheim Put Little Arabia Officially On The Map?
One recent warm afternoon, lunch customers enjoyed the shaded patio of a Lebanese restaurant on Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, as the staff brought out plate after plate of dishes like shawarma and lahm bi ajeen, pizza-like meat pies.
At one table sat Mysoon Mortada, on a break from her job at a social service agency nearby. Mortada, who is Lebanese American, said she moved to Anaheim about six months ago from Dearborn, Michigan, a Detroit suburb that’s arguably the nation’s biggest Arab American cultural hub.
This stretch of Brookhurst Street, she said, feels comfortably familiar. “I feel like I am back in Dearborn where all my family is,” Mortada said. “I didn’t feel like I left, you know? I came home.”
For decades, this part of Brookhurst between Crescent and Katella Avenues has been known informally as Little Arabia. About a hundred businesses here cater to Southern California’s Middle Eastern and North African diasporas, attracting both residents and visitors: grocery stores, restaurants, hookah lounges, and Islamic fashion shops, to name a few.
It’s also a welcoming port of entry for new immigrants and refugees, who can find social and legal services here, 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 business and cultural identity in ethnic enclaves, and usually involve signage identifying the neighborhood.
It hasn’t happened — yet. But it could on Tuesday, when the Anaheim city council is set to discuss, and possibly vote on, an official designation for this portion of Brookhurst.
It’s the first time the matter has come up for a potential vote.
“It’s about time, you know?” said Ihab Elannan, who owns the restaurant with the patio, Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine. “It’s our time to have something to represent us.”
Elannan, an immigrant from Lebanon, said what a lot of people here say: that there are all kinds of “littles” in Southern California, so why not designate Little Arabia? Just a short distance away are Little Saigon, which straddles Westminster and Garden Grove, and Garden Grove’s recently named Orange County Koreatown.
“We’d like to be known as Little Arabia, like anybody else,” Elannan said. “It’s our culture … I think we deserve it. As a culture, we deserve to have that.”
Past Efforts To Establish Little Arabia
For those pushing for a Little Arabia designation, it’s been a long slog. Arab American community advocates say there have been efforts of one kind or another since the 1990s.
A more recent effort over the past decade or so has been spearheaded by the Arab American Civic Council, a local civic advocacy group, which polled Anaheim residents about a Little Arabia designation last year, with the help of UC San Diego. The group’s director, Rashad Al-Dabbagh, said a majority of residents polled supported the idea.
“This is a symbolic recognition for the Arab American community that has brought so much to the city of Anaheim, but it also will bring a lot of economic benefits to the city,” Al-Dabbagh said.
But he said until recently, before councilmember Jose Moreno put the item calling for a “Little Arabia District” on the agenda, they got little traction from city hall.
“There’s a lot of excuses,” Al-Dabbagh said, “but we don’t know what the real reason is.”
Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College political science professor who studies local Orange County politics, said that when it comes to designating Little Arabia, there hasn’t so much been vehement opposition as inaction.
“It is opposition by delay,” Balma said. “I haven't been able to find any public opposition; the opposition comes from the council refusing to act, and their delay tactics are, like…'let's talk to the community more.’"
Balma referred to a recent request by Councilmember Gloria Ma’ae, whose district includes Little Arabia, for the city to conduct further study of the area before moving forward.
A related motion, also on Tuesday’s agenda, seeks “a study that would research the needs of the local community, engage all stakeholders including the Arab-American business community, non-Arab business community, area business patrons, and residents for the purpose of analyzing the various district options for the corridor.”
Ma’ae did not respond to several 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 more do we need to know?” Balma said. “This is not a new concern. This is not a new proposal. We're talking about 10 years of having the community, and in particular the business owners of this community, asking for this designation.”
After a previous effort to put the Little Arabia designation on the city council agenda failed early last year, former Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu told media outlets in a statement that while “we love Little Arabia,” that “as a large, diverse city, we have to take a broader, more inclusive view when it comes to formal designations.”
But Sidhu is no longer on the council, after resigning in May amid an ongoing FBI corruption probe over the sale of Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
Its Place In Anaheim
Sidhu’s absence is one reason why Little Arabia backers say they’re feeling optimistic about getting more support now, going into Tuesday’s potential vote.
“The important thing for us right now is, it’s on the agenda,” said Al-Dabbagh. “And we’re hoping that we get a ‘yes’ vote from all the council members.”
Councilmember Jose Moreno told LAist that he’ll push for a vote in the meeting. He said the decision should be a no-brainer.
“I think of Little Arabia the way I think of the stadium, the Honda Center, the resort,” Moreno said. “It's a citywide asset, and we benefit as an entire city from it.”
Back on the patio at Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine, Mysoon Mortada was now finishing her lunch and getting ready to return to work.
She said she was surprised when she learned, after moving to Anaheim, that Little Arabia was not an official “little.”
“There's Chinatown, there's Little Italy, there's Little Korea (Koreatown) in L.A. and stuff, but why isn't there no Little Arabia yet?” she said.
A short while later, after the lunch rush died down, restaurant owner Ihab Elannan stepped onto the patio for a cigarette break. He said he’d love to see signs on local streets and freeways, pointing people to Little Arabia.
“Anybody (who) will be driving, they will know, there is something (to) represent over here Mediterranean food, Mediterranean culture.”
But there’s more to it than business, he says.
“Plus, it’s something for us. We deserve to…be recognized, that’s all.”