Longform

Sunnyslopetopia

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.

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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