Phoenix's Sunnyslope Neighborhood in Danger of Losing its Quirky Character

This might be a story about the beginning of the end of Sunnyslope as we know it. Call it the Dumbing Down of Mayberry, or How We Lost Another Round to the Big Box Guys. Call it progress, or community evolution, or stop reading now before I get to the part where the urbanists begin mewling about gentrification.

Actually, what's happened is the opposite of gentrification: Walmart has come to Sunnyslope. It's the new anchor at a large-ish outdoor strip mall, and its 24-hour service has brought with it a fully lighted parking lot and almost 100 new jobs for locals. But not everyone in this quirky community — a wide spot on Phoenix's west side that has managed to maintain a real small-town presence in what used to be the heart of our city — is thrilled.

I'd have guessed that Sunnyslope, home to broad-minded liberals and in need of an economic boost, would have embraced the diversity and big bucks brought by this middle-class mega-store, plunked down in a former Food City site at First Street and Dunlap. I was mistaken.

"Why would you go to the bakery and the pharmacy and the local grocer and the pet store," Slope resident Mike Sender asked me last week, "if you could go to one place and get all them errands done in one place?"

Why, indeed. Sender, who will refer to Walmart only as "Small Fart" during my very long telephone conversation with him, is among those Slopians who believe that a prole department store will signal the end of the ma-and-pa businesses that give Sunnyslope its small-town character.

My friend Christine Plante disagrees. Plante is a Slope resident and the former neighborhood relations manager for J.C. Lincoln Health Network, the large local business that props up Sunnyslope financially. I call Chrissy whenever talk turns to her oddball neighborhood.

"I won't personally shop at Walmart for my own, mostly political reasons," she admits to me, referring no doubt to the company's infamous low wages and affiliations with various conservative organizations. "But I don't agree that having one here is an entirely bad thing. I think it will give people the chance to discover those little local Sunnyslope businesses that are near or adjacent to Walmart. So you're a Walmart shopper, and you come down to the new store and on your way there you notice Grinder's Coffee, or Karl's Bakery, or some other locally owned business you didn't know was there."

Plante, who petitioned hard for a Trader Joe's market to take over the space vacated by a Food City store in 2011, wants to think of Walmart as a beacon. But it could just as easily stand as a warning that Sunnyslope is about to lose the small-town quirkiness that is a big part of its appeal.

It's not hard to draw a line from a big-box store in Sunnyslope to the gentrification of this still-grungy community and its gorgeous mountain views and neatly centralized location, both great reasons to gentrify.

"The little cafes and cute hardware stores are also very appealing." my pal Taz Loomans, who fled Phoenix for Portland last year, reminds me. "Eventually, though, those small local businesses get eaten up by the chain stores that turn up in gentrified areas."

An architect turned writer who made her name boostering sustainable building practices, Loomans finds herself battling similar bigger-is-better ideologies in her new home city. "Like Phoenix, Portland is also getting very gentrified," she says, "and therefore the creative types are getting priced out of neighborhoods."

The result might well be a more homogenized, less weird neighborhood — one that will eventually look like any neighborhood in any town — and Phoenix, newly rediscovered by national developers who are bringing their own out-of-town imprint to our city, can't afford to lose any more character.

Loomans, living in Chandler for the summer while she helps care for her elderly father, says she's hopeful that Sunnyslope will stop at Walmart. But staying at her father's house in the far East Valley has got her spooked.

"I'm worried that convenience will win out over character," she says. "I'm afraid I'll come back to Phoenix next year and it will look like the suburbs of Chandler. And that would break my heart."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela