Taking Pride in Sunnyslope

Sunnyslope is weird — in a good way.

I think so, anyway. But it took me a while to forget this oddball neighborhood's reputation as a slum, because I grew up in Phoenix, where for many years Sunnyslope was the punch line to a local joke about "bad" parts of town.

But I started writing about Sunnyslope a few years ago, which meant driving around its streets, lined with cleverly renovated bungalows and neatly rehabbed former public buildings — rather than just driving through and past Sunnyslope on my way somewhere else, which I'd always done before. And it became difficult, once I really began looking at Sunnyslope, not to see the ways in which it was splendid. For one thing, it's nestled against a mountain, just like some of our tonier bedroom communities. Its amenities include privately owned — and extremely peculiar — gardens and museums open to the public. It has its own art walk, a history museum (seriously, find me another neighborhood that has its very own museum) and a growing number of Internet fan pages. And it practically shines with a real sense of pride in itself, as if it were a town, rather than just a neighborhood.

"There's a reason that some of the top architects in the city live there," says Marshall Shore, a local historian who will host a private tour next month called "Keep Sunnyslope Quirky" as part of Modern Phoenix's April celebration of that part of town. "There are artists and designers and creative types all over Sunnyslope. And it's not just because it's pretty. It's because creative people are drawn to interesting, diverse communities."

I have a different theory: Sunnyslope is, in many ways, the most Phoenix-like part of Phoenix. Its topography features hills and a proper mountain; its outlying areas are studded with cactus. Wealthy people live in fancy houses that overlook housing developments where the immigrant population makes its homes.

"The real difference between Sunnyslope and other parts of town," according to Christine Plante, "is that these people behave like a blended community. In the rest of the Valley, it's more about like-minded people living alongside like-minded people. Here, not so much."

Plante is a Sunnyslope resident who moderates the neighborhood website (www.sunnyslopecommunity.org), as well as the official Sunnyslope Facebook page. She's also the neighborhood relations manager for J.C. Lincoln Health Network, which means she's hooked up to the very life source of Sunnyslope, because J.C. Lincoln is that rarest of things: a large local business that supports the community in which it resides (and practically created, since the hospital rose from the ashes of the TB camps that were Sunnyslope's original raison d'etre).

"It's freaky, but true," Plante says. "People who live here are so engaged in their town they create fan pages for this place. It comes from a place of pride."

She's not kidding. There are five separate Facebook pages extolling the virtues of Sunnyslope — two of them dedicated solely to S Mountain, Sunnyslope's famous landmark at Central Avenue and Hatcher, and one of these "narrated' by the mountain itself. (To be fair, downtown Phoenix has three Facebook pages — although none of them was created by unpaid fans of the neighborhood, and none features a talking foothill.)

Plante disagrees with me that Phoenix neighborhoods never overcome their lousy reputations. "Not never," she says. "People come in with fresh eyes and new ideas; they don't know about how people were laughing at your part of town 20 years ago. A stigma can be overcome by a good neighborhood, and why would anyone think Sunnyslope isn't a great place?"

Maybe because some people don't like quirky. Sunnyslope has grocery stores and public art and nice views, but its featured amenities are rather rarefied. There's the Sunnyslope Rock Garden, an odd jumble of tiny buildings, weird ceramic masks, and rock fountains on the front lawn of a local brick house. There's the Building Materials Museum, where one can ogle old bricks and bits of plaster excavated from torn-down bank buildings and long-gone Der Wienerschnitzels. And there's the El Cid, formerly a bowling alley and skating rink (and now a hockey training facility) built by a doctor whose patients paid off past-due medical bills by setting up pins and handing out skates.

I love all this, and so, it's obvious, do the people who've created and sustained it. Sunnyslope belongs to its people, and they're not about to let go of their town's — I mean their neighborhood's — quirkiness. While Arcadia, another well-known neighborhood here, spent our recent boom years tearing down its original ranch architecture and replacing it with Styrofoam-and-stucco McMansions, and while downtown Phoenix continues to bulldoze landmark hotels and churches, Sunnyslope is staying put.

"Our idea of renovation isn't to make things look new and modern," says Plante. "We got grant money from the city to give a facelift to The Eye Opener, and now it looks like it used to when it first opened. In another part of town, the building would have been modernized."

Plante is referring to the greasy spoon where Sunnyslopers have gathered for breakfast and lunch for decades. It's among the last of the old-time, ma-and-pa diners in the city. It's a gathering place that stands, according to Shore, as an example of how truly unusual Sunnyslope is.

"After the exterior renovation was done," he says, "a local designer and a local architect got together and drew up plans for an interior renovation — for free." Why? "Because," he says, as if I've asked an impossibly naive question, "they live here, and they want to keep Sunnyslope very, uh, Sunnyslope."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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