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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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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