Jason Hill

Mike Nielsen is talking about his dream again. It's about a Phoenix neighborhood so perfect he's not sure there's a single adjective that can do it justice. In this fantasy neighborhood, there's a nice mix of upscale, custom homes and affordable housing; a spiced-up combination of hilltop mansions, swanky gated communities, newly constructed starter homes, and careworn bungalows just ripe for renovation by civic-minded architecture fans. This picturesque pastiche of houses is nestled into and around a handsome, hilly landscape and surrounded by sweeping desert views yet is only minutes from downtown. This oasis in the desert is peopled by a diverse, harmonious community eager to embrace local culture and history.

These charming townsfolk in Nielsen's dream village gather in a cool coffee shop where hipsters and oldsters hang together, they meet for after-work cocktails at the hot new upscale wine bar, and they bump into each other at the greasy spoon where the waitresses remember how you like your cheeseburger. When they're not hanging at one of these hot spots, these super-sensitive citizens are working together to make their community a prettier, safer place by serving on city-sponsored committees funded by the community's cash cow, John C. Lincoln Hospital; by forming neighborhood coalitions designed to help the unfortunate folks who are blamed for local blight; and by not just providing opportunities for displaced ethnic communities but inviting them to move to this tiny Shangri-La in the desert.

Nielsen's fantasy community, he swears, is not a fantasy at all. "It's happening," he says, "right here and now. In Sunnyslope."

Now, there's a claim that sounds like the punch line to a joke to anyone who's lived in Phoenix for a while. Johnny-come-latelies may not know that "Sunnyslope" and "cool" have long been considered mutually exclusive; that the names Sunnyslope and "crack whore" are used interchangeably around here; that this hundred-year-old community is usually spoken about in accompaniment with a curled lip or at least a well-timed roll of the eyes. But Nielsen, an interior designer and gallery owner who's also known in certain circles as "The Mayor of Sunnyslope" because of his devotion to local neighborhood causes, insists that his community's time has come — that Sunnyslope's bad rap will soon be a thing of the past.

It's hard to argue with Nielsen, considering the recent stampede of developers who are scouting sites for gated communities and custom homes; the number of overlays and restorations and low-rise apartment houses (designed close to the ground, so they don't block the swell city views) going in. The Slope is short on those Styrofoam-and-stucco McMansions that mar most local communities, and long on restored ranch houses from the '50s. And if there's no main drag, there are some amazing pockets of nightlife and cozy neighborhood strip malls.

"We're not all the way there yet," Nielsen admits. "But Sunnyslope is closer than it's ever been to being one of the most desirable neighborhoods in town."

If this were any city other than Phoenix, Sunnyslope would already be our Beverly Hills. Instead, this sleeping beauty — with its gorgeous mountain terrain, its dazzling views of downtown, its proximity to freeways, resorts, and the Central Corridor — has been dogged for decades by a lousy reputation that evolved from its days as the original Tent City, back when it was a lowly convalescent camp where the sick and dying came to soak up the sun.

Founded a century ago by an architect who fell for its unique skyline and klieg-lit, hilly terrain, Sunnyslope has been kept in a continuous holding pattern by that crummy rep. It's maintained its place as a community on the brink of significance, a place of great paradox. Its handsome, hilly landscape — which stretches from 16th Street to 19th Avenue, between Northern and Cactus Roads — has long been populated by drug dealers and hookers, undesirables whose derelict homes rest in the shadow of million-dollar hillside housing. It's a community that's often mistaken for a town; one that's been home to both one of the city's best-regarded high schools and its highest concentration of crime.

And though developers have been busy building stadiums and relocating college campuses and renovating fallen neighborhoods all over town, the denizens of Sunnyslope have been quietly rebuilding their community, one street at a time. It's an eccentric, grass-roots effort unlike any other in the Valley, one born of necessity by this overlooked, redheaded stepchild of a borough, and funded by a corporate benefactor — a hospital, no less — that owes its very existence to Sunnyslope.

As a result of this beneficence, the downtrodden Sunnyslope, like any good mirage, is fading fast. Its rundown neighborhoods are bustling with infill projects, custom homes, and restoration plans. Shearer's Plumbing, a high-profile Central Avenue junkyard stacked high with old toilets (locals knew it as "the porcelain palace") has been replaced by a tony interior design showroom. Sleazy Giovanni's Mediterranean Lounge is now Corbin's Bar and Grill, one of the Valley's hottest eateries. Bomberos, an upmarket wine bar, is set to open in October in an abandoned fire station on Central.  

The word is out about this area's reclamation, and folks are coming from far and wide — arty types from Roosevelt Row; young marrieds from Arcadia; even Oaxacan refugees from southern Mexico — to claim Sunnyslope as their own.

That isn't to say there aren't big chunks of Sunnyslope that don't still suck. That gorgeous new custom home going up on the corner is probably visible from that row of condemned homes (Wait, those are condemned homes, right? People don't actually live in shacks, do they?). And there are long stretches of Cave Creek and Hatcher Roads (especially Hatcher Road, which is so scary it has its own, separate reclamation group, the Business Coalition Hatcher Road Committee, designed to tackle it) that are as trashy as they've ever been, full of ticky-tacky junk shops and cut-rate auto mechanics. But there's also a surplus of cute, old block-and-brick ranch houses tucked away there, and city-funded programs designed to help first-time homebuyers snap them up and fix them up with matching-funds grants. And there's still enough of those quirky west-side ma-and-pa shops and businesses — like Bagby the Barber's, where you can get a flat-top for ten bucks and loads of neighborhood gossip for free, or Mini Mercado Restaurant Oaxaca, where Sunnyslope's fast-growing Oaxacan community congregates.

"Part of Sunnyslope's charm is in its promise," Nielsen says. "You can look around and tell that we're busy making it better, and also trying to keep what's charming about the community alive."

That "we" started out, just 20 years ago or so, as Nielsen and a handful of locals tired of the skanky foot traffic on Hatcher Road, and has grown to a dozens-strong team of Slopers who've become so aggressive in fighting crime and so savvy about how to bolster their sagging community that folks at City Hall have actually taken notice and — can it be true? — dug deep to help residents clean up the area. There's a new police substation going in at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Peoria, a brand-new grammar school, and increased efforts to run the whores and druggies out of the area. Sunnyslope's portion of Dunlap Avenue has a new sewer system, fancy brick-façade curbs, and more than a mile of its own public art installation. (Okay, so some of them look like wrought-iron skeletons dressed in leisure suits, and one of them appears to be clutching her genitals, but go find another neighborhood with this much publicly funded art — more public art, say those in the know, than any other neighborhood in Phoenix.)

But local memories of the place aren't fading quite as fast as its hookers and its ramshackle housing. There are still those who grimace at the mention of Sunnyslope; those who make cracks about meth labs and hand jobs and slumlords. And talk still occasionally turns to changing the area's name ("North Mountain" gets suggested most often) to help distance it from its dreary reputation.

"Sunnyslope is just a perfect name," says Polly Martino, who's lived in the 'hood for 51 years. Martino remembers when that part of Phoenix was still called "One-Lung Town," long after the TB camps had shut down — when it wasn't a destination so much as a wide turnaround at the end of town.

"In the '50s, you lived downtown and you went for drives at night in the summer to cool off," she recalls. "You'd drive up Central through this belt of cool air over by the citrus groves on Bethany Home Road, and you got to Sunnyslope and you turned around and came back. But I started to notice that Sunnyslope had everything you could ever want. They had a Yellow Front, a Bayless grocery, a dress shop, and their own clinic. So we moved here. Truthfully, I didn't care what the place was called."

We have the late Alice Norton to thank for Sunnyslope's rather unsubtle name. Her father, architect William Robert Norton, was sick with tuberculosis and brought his family to the area in 1907, where they settled into a squatter's community of asthmatics and TB patients. Tents and makeshift dwellings were illegal within Phoenix city limits, so ailing folk with no money headed for this hillside "lunger camp" on the edge of town, where the dry climate could heal them of TB, "the people's plague," from which a whopping 25 percent of the nation was suffering. The story goes that little Alice took one look at the hilly, brightly lit terrain and bellowed, "What a beautiful, sunny slope!"  

Norton went on to found the area's first subdivision in 1911; two decades later, the Desert Mission was founded to provide health and social services to needy Slopers. Local physicians and dentists donated time to the mission, which became the center of cultural, social and religious activities and where the ambulance doubled as a shuttle service to local picnics and the mission's therapeutic pottery program. When fire wiped out seven of the mission's nine buildings in 1942, millionaire John C. Lincoln, who'd come to Phoenix from Ohio because of his wife's failing health, donated 20 acres north of Dunlap where a new clinic might be built. The clinic eventually became John C. Lincoln Hospital, which opened in 1965 and became the heart of Sunnyslope, which was already in decline.

By the mid-1980s, the Slope's main business area was known as much for its hos and pot peddlers as it was its budget auto mechanics and its secondhand shops, and the neighborhood was targeted as a "blighted area" by the City of Phoenix. By the end of the decade, the Sunnyslope Village Alliance — the fourth such group to attempt a neighborhood revival — was formed to clean up the community, and the Slope began another long, hard climb out of its own ill repute.

But this time, it worked.

Ask Sunnyslope resident Christina Plante why her community is finally, after 20 years of trying, managing to pull itself up out of the sewer, and she'll tell you it's because of the amazing people who live and work here. She'll say it's because of the fine support of John C. Lincoln Hospital, which funnels a seemingly endless amount of cash into community-reclamation programs, even while it's undertaking a multimillion-dollar renovation project of its own. She'll use the words "community" and "support" and "neighborhood relations" so often, you fear she'll break into a chorus of "Kumbaya" at any moment.

But she has to. Plante is the neighborhood relations manager for John C. Lincoln, a former coordinator of a 2006 Department of Justice Weed and Seed grant that afforded a quarter-million dollars to weed out crime and "seed" neighborhoods in the area, creating what she calls "one giant block watch that helps the city fight blight around here."

Plante is no Pollyanna. "My job doesn't require that I live in the area," she says over an omelet at The Eye Opener, the so-unhip-it's-cool diner on Hatcher Road where she lunches most days. "I'm here because I want to be. And I know better than anyone that we still have a ways to go before this is the perfect neighborhood. But it's also the only place around here where I can live in a big city and a small town at the same time."

As if to prove her point, the restaurant's owner, Halim Mokbel, stops by the table to ask after Plante's cats and to show her the promotional fliers he's just had printed. Plante and her lunch companion, Joel McCabe, appear to know everyone in the place, and everyone seems to know everyone else here, too.

"It sounds like propaganda," says McCabe, who manages Desert Mission's Neighborhood Renewal department, "but it's really true: The reason that this community is succeeding is because it was a community founded in caring." McCabe knows how cheesy this sounds. "But listen," he says. "This community founded the Desert Mission. The Desert Mission helped found the clinic that became John C. Lincoln Hospital. We're just giving back. And it's not all altruistic. We want this to be a vital part of town where our businesses can prosper."

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: When Sunnyslope hit the skids, Lincoln Hospital kept its ER — often the only source of medical care for low-income families with no health insurance — open. "This was at a time when practically every ER in town was shutting down," says Councilman Greg Stanton, whose District 6 includes parts of Sunnyslope. "And when J.C. Lincoln could have pulled out of a depressed area and relocated its entire facility to its new Deer Valley location, it didn't. They stayed here and helped foster the community that founded them."

None of which was of any consequence to Phoenicians, who until recently considered Sunnyslope a drug-infested Loserville where one went to buy a used radiator or a bag of weed, but not to set down roots. The turning point came in 1999 when the city joined forces with John C. Lincoln Hospital and Sunnyslope Village Revitalization, Inc., a nonprofit community development corporation, to build Sunnyslope Village Center, a 12-acre, 120,000-square-foot, $12 million neighborhood retail center located at Central and Dunlap. It wasn't long after that some of our better-known architects and designers began buying land in Sunnyslope. Guys like Eddie Jones of Jones Studio became a fan of the area, and landscape architect Steve Martino opened up shop in the 'Slope. Nielsen Diversified, a renowned interior design gallery, relocated to Central Avenue. And developers began inviting some of their more open-minded clients to come look at the views from the pretty hillsides that surround this part of town. (Even in the middle of a real estate slump, Sunnyslope is not only holding its own, its sales have improved. "Right now, Sunnyslope is second on my list of places where people want to be shown property," says Jim Anthony, a Home League Realty broker who lives in Sunnyslope's upscale, gated Mt. Central Place. "At price per foot, I'd say Sunnyslope is doing better than some better-known Phoenix neighborhoods.")  

"It's like with South Phoenix," Stanton says. "By the time the architects and designers started moving in, the rest of us couldn't afford to [buy a house] there anymore."

Artists are apparently flocking to Sunnyslope in droves, as well. "It's beautiful here, and artists tend to gravitate toward an inspiring view," according to Cody Carpenter, who closed on a house there just last week. Carpenter works in concrete and metal and is designing and building much of the interior detail work in Bomberos. "Let's face it, most artists can't afford to live in the other mountain preserves, and the people there would be too judgmental for most artists, anyway. Here, you can do whatever you want to the outside of your house and your neighbors aren't going to freak out."

Erin Dover, a bronze sculptor says artists may be moving there because "there's a very different vibe here, and we're tucked away, on and around a quiet mountain."

For Nina and Ray Estes, young marrieds who've just moved here from Santa Clara, California, that arts-friendly vibe cinched their decision. "We didn't really know we were in Sunnyslope," Nina says, laughing. "We thought we were in Phoenix. We had it narrowed down to Phoenix and Seattle, and then we found this part of town and we were, like, 'This is it.'"

It was only a matter of time before someone — in this case, Mike Nielsen — starting cooking up Sunnyslope's answer to downtown Phoenix's First Fridays. "I want to call ours Second Saturdays," Nielsen says. "We don't have a lot of art galleries up here, but we have a lot of public space over by the canal, and a lot of parking lots. Merchants could offer their lots to independent artists to set up in for that one night, and we'll really have our own arts scene."

Until Second Saturdays get going, Nina, a painter, and Ray, a metal worker who hopes to open a wind-chime shop in the neighborhood, have plenty to keep them busy in their new neighborhood. They love Via de Losantos, an unpretentiously kitschy ma-and-pa Mexican restaurant on Central Avenue whose bar is crowded with young scene-makers who dig the hole-in-the-wall atmosphere and the framed photos of Rose Mofford on the walls. They grab their morning brew each day at Grinder's Coffee Company, and they can't step into Corbin's for dinner without running into three people they know.

"I kind of don't want to say too many good things about Sunnyslope," Ray says. "I don't want it to be overrun with boring people."

Ray needn't take up the "Sunnyslope is here!" cheer because there are already hundreds of men and women to do it for him. There must be something in the water in Sunnyslope. How else to explain all these otherwise reasonable adults hollering with joy about a neighborhood that's been struggling to get it together for 100 years? Why else would normally grumpy school principals refer to their community as "a magical place" and councilmen say things like "I was afraid when I moved districts that I would lose Sunnyslope"?

Jim Mapstead, who's chaired the Quarterly Sunnyslope Business Coalition meeting since its inception, likes to talk about how, mere days after breaking ground on the new Sunnyslope police station, the city ran the Hell's Angels out of the neighborhood by buying up the bikers' local clubhouse. Corbin's owner Kevin McNeill is looking forward to using the just-launched Phoenix Neighborhood Circulator route, a free shuttle service that's Sunnyslope's answer to the light rail. Former Sunnyslope High principal John Croteau, who's affectionately known as "the king of the neighborhood," boasts that his school, long ranked as one of Arizona's "excelling schools," made the list of Newsweek's top 1,300 schools this year. "It's Viking pride!" he says, referring to the school's mascot without a trace of irony. And neighborhood crime, according to published reports from the Phoenix Police Department, is down nearly 30 percent from this time last year.  

And then there's that 100-foot-tall "S" painted onto the southernmost side of Sunnyslope Mountain, which Croteau swears is part of the secret of Sunnyslope's success. "That 'S' draws all eyes to our community," he says, "and so we don't want it to fail." He's apparently not kidding.

Eventually, every conversation with a Sunnyslope resident will turn to that giant, white "S." Locals seem inordinately proud of the colossal upper-case letter, and of the annual ritual that sends Sunnyslope High's freshman class up the hill to refresh the "S," which 'Slope historian Connie Kreamer claims can be seen from 30 miles away.

Kreamer's name comes up a lot, too. She's regarded as the community's unofficial den mother and historian, and "I'm not sure, but Connie will know" appears to be the mantra of every local. She's lived here since 1959 and presides over the rather Spartan Sunnyslope History Museum, founded in 1988. She's a font of knowledge about the neighborhood's past and present, but she's a little bit worried about its future, too.

"Families die off," she says. "And I wonder if the younger generation will follow in our footsteps. You have to wonder if the kids will have the same sense of place that we have."

Despite all the cheering, Sunnyslope still has far to go before it can call itself a model community. For every cool new bungalow, there's a street's worth of teardowns; for every gated community, there are two scuzzy trailer parks. And though most neighborhood communities don't have their own Web sites, few that do include a menu with choices like the rather dire options offered on Sunnyslope's WINS (which stands for "Where Impacting Neighborhoods Succeeds") Web site. Visitors to the site can choose from Blight, Bulk Trash, Drug Activity, Graffiti, Liquor Enforcement, Prostitution, Shopping Carts, Suspect Stolen Vehicle, and Trespassing.

"We still have the same challenges as the rest of Phoenix," admits Cindy Hallman, executive director of Desert Mission. "Crime is still a concern, and people still don't feel safe walking around here at night. There's still some prostitution and drug houses. But we're working on moving those people along."

And where will all the druggies and whores go? Probably into another nearby community, according to "Leslie," a former hooker who "left the life" thanks to Dignity at Sundance Lodge, Sunnyslope's prostitute-reform program.

"They might go to Marvyale or something," says Leslie, who's staying these days in her ex-sister-in-law's double-wide in a seedy Sunnyslope trailer park. "But they'll be back. Drug dealers and prostitutes. I don't know that you'll ever be rid of all of them. They've existed since biblical times."

Kathleen Mitchell, another former prostitute, who founded the Sundance Lodge program, knows about the Sunnyslope enclaves. "They congregate where they'll be least bothered, in the mountains or in caves or down in a wash," Mitchell says. "The police do sweeps every once in awhile to clear them out, but they come back. That's why we have a diversion program for the johns — we call it Johns School. We stick them in a classroom and we bring in Sunnyslope residents to talk to them about how prostitution can mess up a community. It's real effective."

Until recently, Polly Martino used to hike up into the desert and sit on a big pile of shale and look out over her community. When they were little, she'd take her daughters with her. "From up there, we'd look down and solve all the problems of the world."

She's not able to make that hike anymore, so she hangs out at The Eye Opener instead. She's sometimes there for lunch, but she never misses breakfast. She always sees people she knows, and her favorite waitress, Bev, always knows Polly's order even before she gives it. From there, she can see how the Sunnyslope community has grown and how it's changed, even better than she could from her pile of shale.

"There's no mystery about why this area is making a comeback," she says. "The truth is that there was no place else for Phoenix to sprawl to."

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