Years ago the area of Brookhurst Street between Interstate 5 and Katella Avenue used to be a seedy and rundown part of Anaheim — that is until Arab American businesses started to set up shop.
Over the years the area has been revitalized as more Arab owned businesses opened their doors, creating a tourist attraction for Orange County residents who want a taste of Arab and North African culture and a safe haven for Arab Americans and immigrants in Southern California who flock to the area to get a reminder of back east.
“It was not a part of Anaheim where people wanted to go,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council. “This part of the town was neglected and in the 90s is when developers that are immigrants (and) that are Arab, kind of encouraged people to move to the area and start businesses and slowly it turned into a vibrant part of the city.”
The small business owners did so without any city subsidies.
Now, Arab Americans want their efforts and contributions recognized by the city with signs put up to identify the area officially as Little Arabia — something city leaders have resisted for more than a decade.
For some residents, it’s a stark contrast to how larger business interests in Anaheim are treated.
Angel’s team owner Arte Moreno saw more than half the cost of Angel stadium shaved off of the original $325 price tag to subsidize hundreds of affordable homes and a seven acre park when the city sold the stadium to him last year at a price many already questioned as too low to begin with.
The city also gave close to $7 million last year to Visit Anaheim, the advertising bureau of the Disneyland resort and convention center industry in the city, to advertise the closed resort area dipping into reserves at first and then replenishing the reserves through federal funds intended for Coronavirus relief aid.
Meanwhile small businesses in Little Arabia hit hard by the pandemic are having to make do with the money they get from Coronavirus relief business grants and loans through the city.
“I know that there are small grants here and there that were given in the last year but this is nothing compared to the funds that were given to a PR agency for tourism in a time when there’s no tourism,” Al-Dabbagh said. “The city should spend more of its energy and more of its tax money to support our small businesses.”
There are currently about a hundred businesses, including grocery stores selling Arab food staples not found at American supermarkets, restaurants serving traditional dishes like stuffed grape leaves, pastry shops that make desserts off or recipes passed down for generations and hookah lounges owned and operated by Arab Americans and Arab immigrants in the area.
Al-Dabbagh said such a designation will bring commerce to the city.
“More commerce is good for Anaheim, it is good for small business owners and it is good for the economy especially in a time when everyone is hurting financially during the lockdown,” he said.
The Arab American Civic Council is calling on Anaheim residents to write in to the Anaheim City Council meeting scheduled for 4 p.m. this evening to ask the council to officially recognize the area and set up signage. The meeting will be streamed live online and the city encourages the public to submit comments at least two hours before the meeting starts.
The Civic Council has been mobilizing the community and petitioning city officials to officially recognize the area. Last year members of the Civic Council visited businesses in the area handing out masks and passing around the petition for owners to sign. As of Monday morning the petition had over 580 signatures.
But the calls have fallen on deaf ears even though current Council Members promised on the campaign trail that they would move to officially recognize the area with signs.
During a debate between city council candidates in 2016 moderated by Voice of OC’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana, Councilmen Moreno, Jordan Brandman and Steve Faessel said they’d support such a designation.
Four years later and they have yet to keep their word to voters on the designation.
Moreno said he still supports the designation but said the designation doesn’t have support to even get it on an agenda. He added he has been unable to agendize issues for over a year now because three council members are needed to support putting an issue on the agenda.
The mayor can put anything on an agenda he wants however without the support of other council members.
Moreno added that he doesn’t know the cost of putting up the signs but doesn’t believe it should be a barrier.
“If we’re spending $7 million to promote Anaheim, then any cost whether that’d be signage or other things to designate little Arabia is part of promoting your city,” Moreno said. “To me that would be a hollow argument that falls on its face, given how much money they spend on promoting the city in other ways.”
Brandman and Faessel did not return calls for comment.
Councilman Jose Diaz has told the Voice of OC in the past that it’s “too early” to call it Little Arabia because the area is still diverse. He too did not return requests for comment either.
Cultural districts have been recognized all over Los Angeles and in Orange County – most recently the designation of Koreatown in Garden Grove in 2019.
“Some people fear designation for some reason but Little Saigon was recognized, nothing bad happened. Little Korea was recognized more recently and the world didn’t end,” Al-Dabbagh said. “We’ve been talking about this for more than a decade — almost two decades — and it’s time to just get it done.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @[email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.