A state Senate resolution introduced in August is calling for official acknowledgement of Anaheim’s Little Arabia district — an ethnic enclave that centers around Brookhurst Street in West Anaheim — with highway signs on Interstate 5.
But in order for the markers to go up, the city of Anaheim or the county of Orange must first officially designate Little Arabia, according to the measure, which was introduced by Republican state Sen. Ling Ling Chang, who represents parts of Anaheim.
“If it passes it would mean that the state as a whole would recognize the contributions of Arab Americans to Orange County and to the city of Anaheim,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, a grassroots community organization based in Anaheim. “It’s about time.”
The measure, SCR 71, also requires non-state donations to fund the landmark.
According to the text of the resolution, a sign will “recognize how Arab American business owners have improved the area” and will also “encourage the continued attraction of customers and tourists to this important component of cultural diversity.”
Alan Abdo, the owner of Olive Tree Restaurant in Anaheim, agreed.
“It would help a lot of our businesses here,” he said of a highway marker. “All the Arabs know where the Little Arabia district is. It would be great to get different groups of people coming in from all cultures, backgrounds and religions to share our food.”
This would not be Orange County’s first highway sign marking an ethnic enclave. Signs also mark Little Saigon and Garden Grove’s Orange County Koreatown, which, until recently, was called the Korean Business District.
According to Al-Dabbagh, what was then known as Little Gaza began in the 1980s with a Middle Eastern grocery store, and during the 1990s, the area gradually attracted other restaurants, cafes, bakeries and hookah bars, as well as social service organizations and community groups to assist a growing immigrant population.
By 2010, he said, the name of the district shifted to Little Arabia to reflect the diversity of the population, which now includes Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians, Yemenis, Iraqis and Syrians.
Around this time, Al-Dabbagh said, Arab American advocates, including the Arab American Civic Council, also started pushing for a higher profile for Little Arabia as a way to boost business, and, given the area’s proximity to Disneyland, to give tourists a culinary alternative to the abundance of chain restaurants.
In 2014, the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau designated it as an official tourist attraction, and then-Mayor Tom Tait called attention to the district in his annual state of the city speech.
“Home to halal butcher shops, restaurants, beauty salons, travel agencies, bakeries and more, this neighborhood is really a cultural destination in our city,” he said. “Whether you are stopping by Olive Tree for delicious lamb or picking up some baklava at Papa Hassan’s, Little Arabia gives visitors a different experience than a typical convention city.”
But the new resolution isn’t just about business, said Abdo of Olive Tree Restaurant.
“I think it would help break down stereotypes,” he said. “People would get to see what the Arab American community is like. It’s mainstream. It’s not just for us to be proud to have a sign on the freeway, but with all that’s going on in the world, people might pull over and drive down and walk into these businesses and see that everyone there is just like them, working hard. You’ll see a bunch of families with their kids, no different from any other culture or religion, and they don’t have to go to the Middle East to see it.”
The Arab American Civic Council is encouraging residents to sign a letter in support of the Senate resolution and to join a volunteer group called the Little Arabia Action Committee to push for Little Arabia’s official designation at the local level.
Al-Dabbagh said that when advocates first started pushing for official recognition by the city of Anaheim less than a decade ago, they were met with reluctance. But now, given the organizing Arab Americans have done around the issue, he feels more hopeful.
“I feel like it’s a matter of time,” he said.