Longform

Sunnyslopetopia

Page 2 of 5

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!"

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