Anaheim City Council members will soon consider officially recognizing a stretch of Brookhurst Street by a name local business owners and residents have been calling it for years – Little Arabia.
It comes after more than a decade of advocacy by residents, community groups and business owners.
Despite a poll showing support for recognizing Little Arabia and public comments over several years from residents in support of the designation – Anaheim City Council members have never discussed formally recognizing the area before.
“We always felt that there was always somebody pushing from outside not to discuss this as a city. This was a fight,” said Ihab Elannan in a Wednesday phone interview.
Elannan, who owns the Little Arabia Restaurant, said it feels good the debate will finally take place especially since the community has long felt ignored by the city council.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Councilman Jose Moreno scheduled a discussion to officially recognize the community that stretches along Brookhurst Street between the 5 freeway and Katella Avenue.
“It is about time we finally designated Little Arabia, we are organized, we are ready, we have a plan, we have a map. It’s been over 20 years,” said Mirvette Judeh during Tuesday’s public comment period.
“Stop pitting us against each other,” she said.
Moreno said it’s time to officially recognize the name that it’s long been called.
“It is essential that our city formally recognizes the jewel of Little Arabia because the world already recognizes (it) and has named it and designated it,” Moreno said in a phone call Wednesday.
The discussion is scheduled for August 23.
“It is essential that any community that has developed a strong identity that has integrated itself – but provides a unique and dynamic space – when they request to be recognized, we should honor that so it’s been long overdue and I just regret not having been able to do it sooner,” he said.
The discussion also comes after a fractured city council eased agenda-setting rules, which allowed Moreno to single handedly put the proposal forward.
According to the Little Arabia website, the idea of recognizing the area started to form in 2004 and by 2010 a social media campaign was launched to get the city to designate the area.
Since then, efforts led by the Arab American Civic Council and Brookhurst’s small business owners to get their elected officials to discuss a designation and officially recognize the area have renewed over the years multiple times.
Various rosters of the city council however ignored those requests.
But now a debate on Little Arabia will finally take place 18 years after the idea first started to take shape.
For members of the Arab American Civic Community like founder Rashad Al-Dabbagh and fellow Amin Nash who have long pushed for the designation of Little Arabia, the fact a discussion is scheduled feels like the hard work of the community is paying off.
“I cried a little bit,” Nash said in a Wednesday interview. “It also feels that we have permission to do a lot of work to show how much this district has given to Anaheim and show how much that we as a community have offered and will offer to Anaheim.”
Al-Dabbagh expressed relief after decades of hard work and advocacy.
“We’re not celebrating its passage, we’re celebrating simply that it’s going to be addressed,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview. “It feels like there’s this huge attempt to erase us or to sideline us but it also feels good that finally, the council is listening.”
Al-Dabbagh said the community has been through a lot to get to this point.
“It’s an immigrant community. It’s a resilient community. We learned to fight to be recognized and whether they recognize us or not. Little Arabia exists. It’s there,” he said.
Nash said the feeling of being ignored only amplified his drive to get the cultural district officially recognized.
“We do exist. You see us. You see our skin. You see our eyes. You see our businesses. You hear our language. So as much as they try to ignore us, I think what keeps driving us forward is the fact that we’re here. We are a part of Anaheim, and we’re contributing,” he said.
Small business owners say signs would help bring in more money, not just for the businesses that have been a staple in the community for decades, but for the city as well, especially after the economic losses sustained during the pandemic.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, Little Arabia business owners have helped convert a rundown and seedy part of the city into a business hub and cultural oasis that attracts visitors from all over Southern California.
They did it without support from a city which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce – including a recent $500,000 contract from federal COVID bailout money in 2020 and a no-bid $425,000 contract in 2019 to promote business throughout the city.
Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder of the Arab American Civic Council, previously told Voice of OC that the community met with Chamber representatives to discuss Little Arabia, but the discussions never went anywhere.
The business owners also say a designation would recognize them for their contributions to the city – something other cities have done for Asian American communities in Orange County by recognizing Little Saigon and Koreatown.
“We’re pushing for that because everywhere you see people recognized for their culture.We are the only one which nobody is accepting to recognize that we have a culture and that everybody comes to this area because of what we provide,” Elannan said.
Elannan has owned the Little Arabia Restaurant and Bakery on Brookhurst Street for eight years and came to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1998 to continue his studies in hotel managment.
“We would love to see that meeting happening and push for it to see these signs like everybody else,” he said.
And it’s not just Arab American business owners that have supported recognizing the area.
Non-Arab residents and business owners have also advocated for Little Arabia.
“The area has been vibrant for many years because of the notion of Little Arabia, which was very needed due to the increased crime and drugs in the area. Therefore, I’m sure that an official designation would bring even more vibrancy because of more investments and tourists that will know more about the area,” Business owner Jack Huerta said at a June council meeting.
Huerta owns a Mexican restaurant near Ball Road and Brookhurst Street.
Moreno’s request came a month after Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae, who represents the district where Little Arabia sits, called on her colleagues to hold off on scheduling an official recognition until she brings a proposal.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Ma’ae called on staff to bring back a proposal to hire an outside consultant to research the needs of the Brookhurst Street businesses and make recommendations regarding funding for the area.
She called for engagement with all stakeholders “including the Arab American businesses, non Arab American businesses, business patrons, residents and other stakeholders.”
But she didn’t specify when the item would be brought up for discussion and didn’t mention Little Arabia specifically.
Ma’ae’s request comes more than a year after the Arab American Civic Council and the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego released and conducted a poll that found that 58% of voters support or strongly support officially recognizing Little Arabia and 75% of voters who have visited the area back the recognition.
She said at a previous council meeting in June that she has been talking to the Arab American community on the issue.
Yet she also spoke against officially recognizing Little Arabia on the same day she was appointed to the city council last year.
This is not the first time Moreno has asked for the official recognition to be brought before the council.
Moreno called for the discussion on the issue in January 2021, but did not receive any support from his colleagues, including Councilman Steve Faessel and former Councilman Jordan Brandman, who both promised to support the designation in their 2016 campaign trails.
Only this time Moreno didn’t need support from his colleagues to force them to have the long awaited discussion on recognizing Little Arabia.
In June, city council members voted 4-2 to do away with a rule that required council members to have the support of at least two of their colleagues to put an item on a meeting agenda.
A new policy allows one council member to request for an item to be added to the agenda of a future meeting.
Residents and business owners renewed their push for officials to recognize Little Arabia – after former Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned in May following revelations of an FBI corruption probe into his city hall dealings surfaced last month.
Sidhu also came under fire after an Arab American community leader previously told Voice of OC that the former mayor wasn’t interested in pushing for an official city designation of the area because some people in the community held a fundraiser for his opponent in the 2018 election.
“Many things have happened in the city lately that open eyes on so many subjects and one of the subjects was Little Arabia,” Elannan said.
Ma’ae and Sidhu aren’t the only ones from the council to have spoken out against recognizing Little Arabia.
Councilman Jose Diaz told the Voice of OC in 2020 that it was too soon to officially recognize Little Arabia.
“I see Anaheim as a solid unit that welcomes everybody,” Diaz said back then. “It is a very, very diverse area. At this time to designate the area as Little Arabia — I think it’s too early. I’m not saying it’s never going to happen but at this point it is a very diverse area calling it Little Arabia is kind of a stretch.”
At yesterday’s meeting, Diaz recognized an Iraqi immigrant who runs a small business in West Anaheim. The business he recognized, Al Tannour, is listed on the directory of the Little Arabia district website.
“I love immigrant stories,” he said “This is an Iraqi immigrant who fulfilled his lifelong dream of owning his own restaurant and bakery.”
“I love American (stories) like that – people that came to this country to do the best and become successful.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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