"Little Arabia" May Finally Be a Reality for Anaheim, CA
By: Riley Bryant / Arab America Contributing Writer
The US is built on ethnic enclaves. They are quite literally everywhere; from Mexican communities in the Southwest, to Little Italy in Manhattan, to the numerous Chinatowns that riddle the country from California to New York. Arab America Contributing Writer John Mason outlined some of the major Arab hotspots just last week. This week, I’d like to revisit one of those enclaves that is near and dear to my heart: Little Arabia in Anaheim, CA, which has recently made local news as their journey towards official city recognition has moved forward.
Disneyland, Angels Baseball, and Falafel
Anaheim, California is a municipality in northern Orange County, about 25 miles south of Los Angeles. Once a sleepy, unincorporated orange grove, it has developed over the last 70 or so years into the bustling metropolis that it is today. And as an Orange County native, Anaheim also has a very special place in my heart.
The opening of the Disneyland Resort in 1955 put Anaheim on the map. Since then, Disney has slowly taken over the town, making its way into everything from hotels to convenience stores; understandably so, seeing as Disneyland single-handedly brings in nearly $5 billion to Southern California every year. Disneyland, and its accompanying tourism industry, is Anaheim’s leading income and largest employer.
Since becoming a large city, Anaheim has also become home to several sports teams. These include the Angels baseball franchise and Ducks hockey franchise (of Mighty Ducks notoriety). While they have had their ups and downs in terms of success, they have been a major draw for tourism. Together, they, along with Disneyland, have made tourism Anaheim’s largest industry, and brought in billions of dollars for the city.
Looking to join the ranks of these major showstoppers is Little Arabia, a 5-block stretch of dense commercial district hosting a variety of Arab-inspired businesses, from bakeries to hookah lounges. It is a small corner of town, unknown even to many locals; still, for Arabs across Orange County, it is an underappreciated treasure that is finally emerging into the limelight.
The Struggle to Be “Part of Anaheim”
Little Arabia has been fighting for official recognition from the city of Anaheim for nearly 18 years, starting with a petition that circulated in 2004. Since then, the work of dedicated advocates has pressured the city council into recognizing the district. For Little Arabia, official recognition would mean inclusion in guidemaps, road signs, and bus tours- all of which are invaluable promotion materials in Anaheim’s heavy tourism economy. These advocates, known collectively as the Arab American Civic Council (AACC), want to put their local taste of Middle Eastern culture on the map for visitors and residents alike.
“The most important thing to us is saying, ‘We are part of Anaheim,’” said Rida Hamida, director and co-founder of the AACC. Truly, there is a feeling of disconnect between Little Arabia and the rest of not just Anaheim, but Orange County as a whole. My own family, of Armenian descent and very in touch with their Middle Eastern heritage, didn’t know that the stretch of businesses along the busy Brookhurst Street was even a collective body, despite living less than 20 minutes away for over two decades.
The Hesitancy- and Internal Division
Since the initiative has been going on for so long, one will surely ask, “why has it taken this long?” After all, there is clearly a strong community in support of its recognition; if all they’re asking for is a road sign and tourism map, what could possibly be the concern?
The delay is partially purposeful at the hands of members of the AACC. Some, such as Ahmad Alam, Arab journalist and local property owner, feel that Little Arabia is “not ready”. He cites needs for renovation, unclaimed opportunities for expansion, and a need for diversity in the types of establishments present. Alam states that he envisions a more robust Little Arabia that can share Arab culture with their SoCal neighbors. Little Arabia’s supporters share this sentiment, though the AACC is patient and wants to put the effort in as well.
Along these lines, Little Arabia’s biggest problem is financial in nature. Since the start of the initiative, the AACC has been desperately searching for investors. They need more resources towards promotional support, modernization and rebranding, and general upkeep costs. Particularly since the the pandemic, and California’s stringent COVID precautions during the first year and a half, the region has had a difficult time maintaining the sense of community needed to ensure it remains a true ethnic enclave of Anaheim. Despite their best efforts, the AACC is stuck with their current action plan of boosting local attention to draw in tourism, and likewise some sort of funding.
An Easy Scapegoat
The biggest answer to that question, however, is largely tragic, though many would refuse to admit it. Unfortunately, the Arab population in Anaheim makes up a small minority, behind several other demographics with much more pull in local politics. Several vocal residents, many of European-white and Mexican-hispanic backgrounds, feel that recognizing the Arab population would both isolate other ethnic minorities within the city and give the city a poor image. Citing the popular hookah lounges on the strip, these opponents see Little Arabia as a negative influence on a town that tries to look shiny and family-friendly.
“We don’t have a Little Mexico or a Little Korea,” argues Esther Wallace, chairwoman of the West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council. “All the pressure seems to be on putting a Little Arabia out here, and I don’t see why.” Although it is true that there is a higher Mexican/Hispanic and Korean/Asian population in Anaheim (though the exact numbers are difficult to come by, since Arab and MENA ethnicities are classified as white together with the predominantly European demographic), it is also true that these communities do not have nearly as strong or centralized of a community within Anaheim as the Arab population does. Surely, if a petition for Little Mexico or Little Korea were to come up, their application would be met with smiling faces then, right?
Much of this “image” is directly from the influence of the behemoth that is the Walt Disney Company. At 2.5 miles apart, Little Arabia is less than 10 minutes drive away from Disneyland. Yet, as a frequent Disneylander, I would know that Little Arabia is an oasis in a sketchy part of town; the area surrounding Disneyland is not somewhere I would want to be stuck at night, yet the friendly community of Little Arabia is always welcoming and generous. For this reason, I ask of the city council: does Little Arabia really threaten your image, or is it easier to scapegoat onto the ethnic minority?
The subject of Little Arabia is to be discussed by the Anaheim city council at their meeting on August 23. After that date, use this link to view a livestream of the meeting.
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