Hassan at his home in North Toledo.
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.”
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.