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The Last of Little Syria

"God is everywhere," Hassan Cheaib, 81, said as he stood in the road for a photograph near his home in Toledo's North End.  (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

“God is everywhere,” Hassan Cheaib, 81, said as he stood in the road for a photograph near his home in Toledo’s North End. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Hassan Cheaib’s relatives have tried convincing him to leave Toledo’s Old North End and to follow them out to the suburbs — Sylvania, Oregon, Bedford — where many of them live. He refuses. It would be difficult for him to turn his back on the neighborhood he’s called home for the past 50 years.

Why should he move, he asks. Nobody bothers him, he says. Plus, he loves it there. It’s close to everything. Downtown, the Maumee River, and both interstates. And the convenience store that he and his wife Khadije own on Bush Street is only a two-block walk from their home.

“If you told me to go to Sylvania, maybe I’ll die next week,” he said. “I don’t like it. I like it here.”

Watch the full documentary on our special project site: www.littlesyriatoledo.com

The Old North End was a much different place when the 81-year-old father of six moved there in 1962. It was home to the bulk of Toledo’s Arab-American community, known then as Little Syria, a roughly square-mile district that ran from Cherry to Magnolia and Superior to Champlain streets.

The neighborhood was filled with families from Syria, Palestine, and Mr. Cheaib’s native Lebanon. It was like being in the Middle East.

Businesses and stores lined the streets, and the nearby downtown was beautiful day and night, he said. Today, the neighborhood suffers from poverty and blight.

The Toledo-born actor Jamie Farr lived in Little Syria until the 1950s and said the neighborhood was never elegant but was always friendly. Today, Mr. Farr, who is also of Lebanese descent, refuses to visit the north end because he would risk destroying the fond memories he has of the neighborhood. His last visit was about 10 years ago, and he described the neighborhood as “decayed and crumbled.”

“The last house I lived in doesn’t even exist now,” he said. “It’s gone. It’s just an empty lot. The Auto-Lite’s [factory] closed up. It looks like a war zone.”

According to the Census Bureau’s last five-year estimate, the percentage of families living in poverty were 79.9 percent and 34.1 percent in the two census tracts that account for 3,400 people in an area spanning Cherry Street to the Veterans Glass City Skyway and the Maumee River to East Bancroft Street.

The estimated median income for families in the area around Mr. Cheaib’s store was $14,515 — less than $40 day. That’s also less than half the median household income of $33,317 in Toledo and two-thirds less than the median household income of $48,308 in Ohio, according to the Census Bureau.

“It’s a shame now,” Mr. Cheaib said. “Everything changed.”

Ontario Street, between Elm and Mulberry, was once lined with the homes of Mr. Cheaib’s nieces, nephews, and cousins. Much of his extended family credits him with bringing them from overseas and settling them in Toledo. He was the first to emigrate from Lebanon in 1961. He came as a Greco-Roman wrestler, and his family sold a plot of land in their village in south Lebanon so that he would have enough money for a trip to the United States to compete.

He first settled in the historic Arab-American neighborhood off of Dix Avenue in Dearborn, Mich. After dislocating his shoulder, he gave up the sport, and in 1962, he moved to Toledo, where he found an apartment in Little Syria and a job washing dishes at a Monroe Street bar.

As he settled into his new city, he began bringing more family from overseas to settle with him. Many of those who immigrated would stay at Mr. Cheaib’s home. He would help them to find jobs and to adjust to their new life in America. His nephew Khouder Tawil calls him the “original immigrant.” His sister Leila Tawil calls him the “family tree.”

“About a thousand families, at least, originated from him,” Mr. Tawil said.

Surrounded by relatives and friends from back home, Mr. Cheaib re-created his Lebanese village. That was back in the 1970s and ’80s. Now all who are left are him, his wife, and his son, Radi; his brother Mohammad’s family; a first cousin and his family; two nephews, and a former in-law’s family.

Hassan Cheaib shows the credit ledger he keeps at his store. Mr. Cheaib gives credit to some neighborhood members for small items.  (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Hassan Cheaib shows the credit ledger he keeps at his store. Mr. Cheaib gives credit to some neighborhood members for small items. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Small Beginnings

Little Syria, which was once a port of arrival for Toledo Arabs, began with one family, the Nassrs. And it can be said that its twilight years are also being lived out with one Arab family, the Cheaibs.

They are carrying out a history that began when Michael H. Nassr moved to Toledo in 1881.

Known as the “Dean of Toledo Syrians,” Mr. Nassr founded the city’s Syrian-Lebanese community in North Toledo, Hanady Burkett writes in a chapter of Arab Americans in Toledo. The Nassrs lived on the corner of Huron and Walnut streets, she writes, and owned a dry goods store on Cherry Street.

Much like Mr. Cheaib, “he quickly became a magnet, drawing in friends, relatives, and people from his village to Toledo, giving them shelter and assistance,” Ms. Burkett writes of Mr. Nassr.

For more than 80 years, she says, Little Syria experienced growth.

Andrew J. Fenady, Hollywood producer and friend of Mr. Farr, said the neighborhood was a potpourri, “a real mixture,” when he was growing up there. Arabic, Greek, and Polish all could be heard spoken while walking down the street.

“It was a little bit like traveling all over the world without leaving your own neighborhood,” said Mr. Fenady, 86, whose family is of Greek origin.

By the late 1960s — about the time Mr. Cheaib immigrated — the enclave began to lose many of its Arab-American residents, who began to move to other parts of the city, Ms. Burkett writes. Today, just over 50 percent of the neighborhood identifies as black, 39 percent as white, and 14 percent as Hispanic, according to census estimates. Only 37 individuals identified as Arab.

Manira Saide-Sallock, 75, said that about the time she moved out of Little Syria in the 1960s, many of the elders had passed on and the new generation had moved away.

“When you’re younger you’re looking for something maybe better,” she said. “You want to move up a little bit.”

The last time Mrs. Saide-Sallock visited the Old North End was within the past year. She said she parked her car on the corner of Ontario and Chestnut streets, where she used to live, and was saddened to see her childhood home in poor condition, as though it were about to come down.

“I was just thinking about the past and all the good memories,” she said. “I had some beautiful memories over there. And it’s just so sad to see it like that.”

"If I would hit the lottery for millions you would still find me here on my porch," Sy Kreais, 71, said, adding, "I will not leave the North End." Mr. Kreais is a block watch captain who voluntarily keeps up on mowing more than 20 lots around the neighborhood. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

“If I would hit the lottery for millions you would still find me here on my porch,” Sy Kreais, 71, said, adding, “I will not leave the North End.” Mr. Kreais is a block watch captain who voluntarily keeps up on mowing more than 20 lots around the neighborhood. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

A Misunderstood Neighborhood

Many of the Arabs and non-Arabs who have remained defend the north end against what they consider misconceptions.

Ask Sy Kreais, for instance, how he would describe his neighborhood of more than 60 years, and he will tell you that it’s the kind of place whose streets are named after lakes and trees and whose alleys are named after birds.

Mr. Kreais tries as much as he can to have the neighborhood live up to the natural beauty its streets are named after.

The 71-year-old retired construction worker is the Block Watch captain for an area encompassing most of the historic Little Syria district, and he volunteers to mow the lawns and clear the brush of vacant lots in the neighborhood. He said he cuts about 20 yards per week.

Mr. Kreais, who moved to the Old North End in the mid-1950s and has lived there ever since, says he’s seen the neighborhood improve from what it used to be in the 1990s and 2000s.

Back then, he said the north end could be described as a high crime area, which meant Block Watch had to keep up with all the daily complaints, sometimes as many as five a day. Today, the complaints are less frequent — every few days or so. Most of the complaints today are about children hanging out after midnight, people walking in the streets instead of sidewalks, and cars being parked in yards.

“It’s not Sylvania or Ottawa Hills, but we try to keep up as best we can,” he said.

Unique Hicks, 17, a customer at Mr. Cheaib’s carryout, said he doesn’t see the neighborhood getting much better.

“You just have to know how everybody operates,” Mr. Hicks said. “If you don’t know how they operate, you might get caught with the crossfires.”

Hassane Cheaib, a nephew of Hassan Cheaib and neighbor of Mr. Kreais, is a community service officer with the Toledo police in the north end and said crime in the neighborhood has been low recently.

Since 2012, crime in the Block Watch sector that Mr. Kreais heads has been on a decline, with a slight uptick in 2014. During the past three years, burglary accounts for the highest number of incidents. In 2014, there were 255 burglaries, or nearly five every week.

The grand total of reported incidents — such as robbery, homicide, and breaking and entering — has gone from 434 in 2012, to 343 in 2013, and back up to 361 in 2014. This year appears to be on track to being the lowest in the past three years, with 144 total crimes as of June 29.

“The north end gets a bad reception,” Officer Cheaib said. “[People say] ‘The north end is bad. You don’t want to drive around it.’ But the north end is not bad.”

Hassan Cheaib emigrated from Lebanon in 1961, helping pave the way for his immediate and extended family to follow him over in subsequent years. Many members of his family settled in North Toledo, where a few remain today. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Hassan Cheaib emigrated from Lebanon in 1961, helping pave the way for his immediate and extended family to follow him over in subsequent years. Many members of his family settled in North Toledo, where a few remain today. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Battling Blight in the North End

One of the main problems the Old North End faces is blight. Mr. Kreais said there are more than 30 vacant properties in his Block Watch district, and 11 of them need to be demolished.

That’s a difficult task in the Vistula District of the north end, which is considered a historic area by the National Register of Historic Places.

Founded in 1833, Vistula, where Little Syria sat, is Toledo’s oldest neighborhood. Its merger with the nearby village of Port Lawrence in 1837 formed the city of Toledo. Port Lawrence was the business district, and Vistula was the residential area, said Richard Martinez, board chairman of the Historic Vistula Foundation.

Mr. Martinez’s organization works to preserve the history of the neighborhood through architectural preservation. “It’s a very difficult job,” he said, “because a lot of the historic buildings have already been torn down by the city.”

Many of the buildings that remain standing have been converted to subsidized housing, Mr. Martinez said. This means that the exterior is preserved while the inside is renovated.

“It’s difficult to interest people in coming down and living here because there is a lot of subsidized housing,” he said. “On the other hand, if it weren’t for the subsidized housing, a lot of those buildings would be gone. I feel that in many ways, the Section 8 housing has saved this neighborhood.”

Attracted to its large stock of historic homes, Mr. Martinez moved to the neighborhood in the late 1980s. His house is 150 years old. As he puts it, the people who started Toledo are all over the neighborhood. The Secors, the Stickneys, the Valentines.

“History is an important element of how this city has developed,” he said. “And this is the oldest part, this is the beginning.”

To many of those who have remained in the north end through its many transformations, the neighborhood seems to be on its way back to what it used to be many years ago. A place of open storefronts, where Toledoans come to live, to do business, and to enjoy themselves.

“I bet you money,” Hassan Cheaib said. “And I hope I’m alive. Another eight, seven years, five, six years, you’ll see a beautiful Toledo.”

Article by Blade Staff Writer Hasan Dudar. Blade staff photographer Katie Rausch contributed to this report.