Will the L. Ron Hubbard House Turn a Camelback Neighborhood Into a Scientology Recruitment Mecca?

On a recent December Sunday, on a still street nestled against Camelback Mountain, a party is in full swing at the L. Ron Hubbard House. It's meant to be a holiday open house, to show off the stunning renovation of the simple brick dwelling where Hubbard founded Scientology a half-century ago, and to smooth relations with neighbors, some of whom have lately been up in arms about plans to turn the house into a Scientology museum.

These concerned neighbors, none of whom are at the Hubbard House party tonight, have whispered their worries to the Phoenix City Council: that the museum will be a Scientology recruitment center; that it will draw gawkers and weirdoes who will leave trash on their nice lawns; that the house's live-in manager, Marlyse Brock, has been circulating door-to-door propaganda on Scientology, the peculiar, much-beleaguered religion that's been called a cult and an immoral commercial enterprise with a history of harassing its critics and abusing — even harming — its members.

"Has Marlyse brought you any propaganda?" one guest asks another, a woman named Doris who lives two blocks away.

"No!" Doris laughs. "All she's ever brought me is coffee cake!"

Another guest who's dropped in to get a peek at the Hubbard House phones a friend who lives two blocks north. "Are you coming to this thing?" he asks. "It's kind of festive."

"No!" his friend hisses into her phone. "Those people are all crazy. Don't drink too much — they'll get you alone and try to convert you!"

But no one is converting anyone tonight. Guests are mostly sipping wine, wandering the home's expansive desert lot, and admiring Hubbard's 1947 Buick Super 8 parked at the back of the property. Out front, Brock is chatting with a guest at the bottom of the narrow gravel driveway when a car screeches to a halt before her. A middle-aged woman leaps out, throws her arms around Brock, apologizes for missing the party, and jumps back into her car and speeds off.

The guest with whom Brock has been talking laughs and says, "I thought all your neighbors hated you."

Brock shrugs. "Sometimes," she says, "it feels like they do."

It's no wonder Brock feels besieged. She's been dogged for months by neighbors who think that the L. Ron Hubbard House, which the Church of Scientology purchased for a little more than $400,000 in 2000, spells doom for their peaceful neighborhood. They've endured, they say, tour buses full of curious Scientologists who've descended on their streets, backing up traffic on the small residential road onto which the house's driveway spills. They've suffered streams of looky-loos who park their cars all up and down their narrow blocks. They've worried that the City of Phoenix will rezone their neighborhood to allow businesses to operate there, thus setting a dangerous precedent for the rest of the city.

But if one talks at length with the concerned citizens who live in this tony Camelback Village neighborhood, it becomes apparent that these nice people are less civic-minded than they are afraid. That their neighborhood will become known not for its neatly xeriscaped lawns, but for turning out culty radicals. That the proximity of Scientologists will somehow impact them personally. That they — friendly, conscientious, mostly Christian people — will somehow be culpable in the recruitment of more Scientologists, which is what they swear is happening at the L. Ron Hubbard House.

And if you chat with any of them long enough, it becomes clear that most of them just plain don't like Scientologists.

Their concerns are certainly rooted in Scientology's oddball and often-contentious reputation. The religion (or, as one Time magazine writer once described it, "a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner") is a peculiar blend of sci-fi and self-help born between 1952 and 1955, while Hubbard (known at the time as a writer of popular science fiction) rented the little ranch house on what was then Tatum Boulevard. (When the city reconfigured surrounding streets in 1955, the house was assigned its current address: 5501 North 44th Street.)

Hubbard established the first Church of Scientology in New Jersey during this time, basing his new religious philosophy on a self-help system he called Dianetics, and on the belief that people are spiritual beings called "thetans," immortals who lived among and were brainwashed by extraterrestrials 75 million years ago.

The church, which boasts 3.5 million members, eschews psychiatry and psychology and promotes a type of counseling called "auditing," a means of spiritual rehabilitation that involves answering a long list of questions while hooked up to a gadget called an Electropsychometer (or E-Meter), a sort of lie detector that examines one's mental state. In recent years, the religion has become known for its high-profile Hollywood membership, notably actors John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and especially Tom Cruise.