Sunny Side Up

Robrt L. PelaMay 1, 2023
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Joe McCallum, Ryan Mapes, Adam McCallum and Frank Malefors curate and operate Eye Opener, a refurbished diner that is now a mid-mod furniture gallery in Sunnyslope.; Photo by Johnny Kompar
Joe McCallum, Ryan Mapes, Adam McCallum and Frank Malefors curate and operate Eye Opener, a refurbished diner that is now a mid-mod furniture gallery in Sunnyslope.; Photo by Johnny Kompar

Blessed with the city’s best views but some of its shabbiest streets, Sunnyslope has long flown under the in-crowd radar. Is the quirky North-Central enclave finally ready for its close-up?

“In order to live in Sunnyslope,” Phoenix native Michele Hermanson says, “you have to be a little bit off.”

She should know. Hermanson grew up in this long-stigmatized North-Central Phoenix neighborhood – known for, among other things, a mountain with a 100-foot-tall “S” painted on it – and currently resides in the area after moving away for a few years. To say the least, she’s happy to be back. 

“Sunnyslope is the best part of Phoenix,” Hermanson says. “It’s quirky, it’s racially diverse, it’s got an edge. And still, people look down on us. Your friends will turn their noses up when you tell them you live in Sunnyslope.”

Locals have been doing just that ever since Sunnyslope was founded as a convalescent camp in the early 20th century. Today, it’s 9 square miles of shacks in the shadow of million-dollar hillside housing, and quite a lot of affordable, midcentury real estate in between.

To be sure, the contradictions in Sunnyslope are abundant and enduring. Adjacent to Paradise Valley, it has some of the loveliest views in Phoenix, set on handsome desert foothills stretching roughly from 16th Street to 19th Avenue between Northern and Cactus roads. But “the Slope,” as locals call it, has also been plagued with disuse and blight, with home values that lag behind the city average. Most Phoenicians are aware of Sunnyslope’s persistently high crime rates – but do they know it also boasts one of the city’s elite  public high schools? That it’s a burgeoning design hot spot and a Hells Angels hangout? And so on. 

Simply put, Sunnyslope is a place like none other in the Valley, according to Phoenix historian and journalist Donna Reiner. “It’s a neighborhood full of paradox,” she says. “It’s got the best things about Phoenix, and some of the worst.”

Another way the Slope is unique: Unlike the Willo, Melrose and other once-distressed Phoenix enclaves uplifted by waves of improvement-minded newcomers, it’s never enjoyed a sustained renaissance. Until now, potentially. Lured by low barriers of entry and a recent upsurge of hip, high-profile restaurants, a new generation of young homeowners and entrepreneurs are staking claims, keen on repurposing old buildings and preserving Sunnyslope’s quirky history.

“the ‘40s House,” now a landmark; Photo courtesy Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum
“the ‘40s House,” now a landmark; Photo courtesy Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum

“We’ve gotten close to getting it right in the past,” says designer and Sunnyslope advocate Michael Nielsen. “But something’s always stopped us. This time, we’re really back on track to be the next big thing.”

The only problem: Not every Sunnyslopian is on board with being “big” or a “thing.”

We can thank little Alice Norton for Sunnyslope’s lyrical name. Her father, architect William Robert Norton, was sick with tuberculosis and brought his family to the desert from Massachusetts in 1907 – five years before Arizona became a state. The Nortons settled into a squatters’ community of asthmatics and TB patients. Because tents and makeshift dwellings were illegal within Phoenix city limits, ailing folks strapped for cash headed for this hillside “lunger camp” on the edge of town, where they hoped the dry climate would heal them of “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 exclaimed, “What a beautiful, sunny slope!”

Norton founded the area’s first subdivision in 1911 and Sunnyslope lumbered through the next three decades as an odd amalgam of shantytown and rural retreat – largely roadless and undeveloped, but dotted with wildcatted homes and crude mansions. In 1936, the area had only 600 residents, according to the Sunnyslope Historical Society.

Sunnyslope’s first development boom took place in the ’40s and ’50s, when local builders bought up plots and filled them with reasonably priced tracts of smaller ranch homes. Perhaps because of its affordable real estate and bohemian reputation, the neighborhood attracted creatives and oddballs. There was Grover Cleveland Thompson, a retired machinist who, in the early 1950s, turned his front lawn into a colossal art installation of rock sculptures and plaster-cast statues. And Dr. Kenneth Hall, the self-proclaimed “King of Sunnyslope” who in 1955 built the 40-bed North Mountain Hospital, a health-care facility with its own primate zoo.

Sunnyslope always did its own thing, though its early attempts to incorporate as a township never got past the popular vote. Concerns about higher taxes and loss of City of Phoenix services – a solo Sunnyslope would have had to provide its own – always won out over autonomy. After four failed township votes, the community was absorbed by Phoenix in 1959.

Arguably, Sunnyslope enjoyed its peak in 1965, when John C. Lincoln Hospital (now HonorHealth John C. Lincoln Medical Center) opened on 20 acres north of Dunlap Avenue. Replacing the old Desert Mission facility, which catered to penniless tuberculants and other needy patients before a fire wiped it out in 1942, the hospital was the legacy of millionaire John C. Lincoln, who’d come to Phoenix from Ohio because of his wife’s failing health. It quickly became the financial heart of Sunnyslope.

Like many neighborhoods fueled by postwar low-income tract housing, this town-within-a-town spent the ’70s and ’80s in steady decline. Always beset by poverty, Sunnyslope was known as much for hookers and pot peddlers as it was budget auto mechanics and secondhand shops by the Reagan era. By the end of the decade, the neighborhood was targeted as a “blighted area” by the City of Phoenix, and the Sunnyslope Village Alliance – the fourth such group to attempt a neighborhood revival – was formed to clean up the community. Sunnyslope began a long, hard climb out of ill repute.

By the early 2000s, developers were scouting sites for gated communities and custom homes, while preservation-minded house-huggers were planning overlays and restorations. Preservationists and midcentury modern fans began eyeballing the neighborhood’s midcentury tract homes and city-funded programs for first-time homebuyers. The local junkyard was scraped and replaced by a tony interior design showroom. Corbin’s Bar & Grill, briefly one of the Valley’s hottest eateries before it closed in 2014, threw open its doors, and Bomberos, an upmarket wine bar, moved into the abandoned fire station on Central.

tuberculosis camp; Photo courtesy Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum
tuberculosis camp; Photo courtesy Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum

Things continued to improve: The local business coalition launched a committee to clean up the hardscrabble business district near Hatcher Road, notorious for loafers and drug dealers, and the city ran the Hells Angels out of the neighborhood by buying up their clubhouse. Neighborhood crime, according to published reports from the Phoenix Police Department, plummeted 30 percent year-over-year from 2005 to 2006. There was a new police substation, a brand-new grammar school and increased efforts from neighborhood groups to crack down on drug crime in the area.

“Things really got going just after about 2000,” says Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum president Pat Wilkinson. “There was a stretch of Dunlap Avenue that got a new sewer system. The curbs got fixed up and they installed a whole mile of public art along Dunlap. You know, we have more public art than any other community in Phoenix.”

Sunnyslope’s lousy reputation was fading as fast as a Sonoran Desert mirage. And then, in 2007, the economy tanked, and rehabilitation of the former lunger camp ground to a halt.

“We had a good pace going there,” says Nielsen, whose local activism long ago earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Sunnyslope.” But he says the recession of 2009 didn’t kill the neighborhood’s momentum.

“It slowed us down for a while,” he says, “but things [picked up] again.”

In 2014, the Sunnyslope Village Center – a 12-acre, 120,000-square-foot, $12 million big-box retail hub – opened at Central and Dunlap, but even more encouraging was an influx of the creative-class entrepreneurs who serve as the lifeblood of any modern urban revival. Well-regarded architects and designers began buying and developing land in Sunnyslope, and some – landscape architect Steve Martino and designer Michael Nielsen among them – relocated their offices there.

Not coincidentally, the Slope’s cultural endowments have grown as well. Following in the footsteps of Timo wine bar and Grinder’s Coffee, hot-spot restaurants The Vig, Little Miss BBQ and O.H.S.O. Brewery’s Little O’s have all moved in within the last three years. Recording studios and a half-dozen small, indie record labels have made Sunnyslope their home.

“I’m not surprised that Sunnyslope is desirable again,” says Phoenix councilwoman Debra Stark, whose District 3 includes Sunnyslope. She cites partnerships with nonprofit groups to assist first-time homebuyers as a catalyst.

According to online listing service Redfin, the neighborhood’s median home price in March 2023 was $325,000, compared to $400,000 for Phoenix proper – a 23 percent gulf. That’s sizable, but not as stark as home prices a decade ago, when Sunnyslope homes were worth about half the average Phoenix home.

Krista Roy, a neighborhood specialist with City of Phoenix Neighborhood Services Department, has also noticed an uptick in city-funded public art: Artist Eli Farias is finishing up a mural on the side of the Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum; there’s a new sculpture by Barbara Grygutis on Butler Road and a Mark Carroll installation at 19th Avenue and Hatcher. Roy says she’s looking forward to a new artist studio tour sponsored by theArt Hub Sunnyslope in the fall and is working on a new artist-grant program.

Aerial photo of Sunnyslope circa 1950s; Photo courtesy Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum
Aerial photo of Sunnyslope circa 1950s; Photo courtesy Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum
Desert Mission chapel, the precursor to John C. Lincoln Hospital; Photo courtesy Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum
Desert Mission chapel, the precursor to John C. Lincoln Hospital; Photo courtesy Sunnyslope Historical Society & Museum

“I think a lot of artists with Downtown studios are going to be moving to Sunnyslope,” she says. “They can’t afford the new higher rents [Downtown], and we have these great spaces up here.”

For some, the clearest sign of Sunnyslope’s renaissance is not public art or higher home values – it’s Sunnyslope High School.

In 2006, Sunnyslope High made Newsweek’s list of the best public schools in America, and it remains in rarified company – behind only the usual retinue of BASIS franchises and specialized academies on U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings of Arizona’s 550 high schools. Higher than Pinnacle High School in the Paradise Valley District. Higher than Arcadia High School.

The school has become so popular for option-starved North-Central Phoenix parents, it’s swapped open enrollment for an admissions lottery system that allows lucky kids from outside the district boundaries to attend.

To sidestep the lottery and ensure their kids can attend Sunnyslope High, some affluent families are actually moving into the ’hood, according to realtor and preservationist Sherry Rampy. “My step-grandson is going to Brophy as his second choice,” says Rampy, whose daughter graduated from SHS. “His parents were looking at moving to Sunnyslope from the Biltmore [area]. If you’ve lived in Phoenix for any amount of time, you know how weird that sounds.”

According to Sunnyslope High principal Jonathan Parker, some out-of-district families go to arguably unethical extremes to secure enrollment. “I’ve heard of people renting homes in the neighborhood so they can come to our school,” he says. “They don’t actually live in these homes, they just want the address. Before we had the lottery, we invited parents to submit paperwork the first Monday of the second semester. They were paying people to line up for them the Saturday before our deadline.”

Even weirder, according to Nielsen, is how developers are approaching Sunnyslope these days. “They used to want to buy up a bunch of small parcels, which is mostly what we have here, and combine them into a teardown that would make room for a larger project,” he says.

The Sunnyslope “S” is a nationally registered historic landmark.; Photo by Alyssa Buruato
The Sunnyslope “S” is a nationally registered historic landmark.; Photo by Alyssa Buruato

Lately, Nielsen says, the trend has shifted to adaptive reuse projects by locals who want to work the Sunnyslope vibe.

That would accurately describe Joe McCallum and his brother, Adam, who last year turned Sunnyslope’s favorite diner into a midcentury furniture store. The Eye Opener diner had closed a few years before, and the McCallums, who grew up nearby, snatched up the vacant building on Hatcher Road. They then partnered with Frank Malefors of Malefors Vintage Imports and Ryan Mapes of Fine Line Modern to create Eye Opener
Curated Vintage.

The city’s adaptive reuse program and Sunnyslope’s Hatcher Urban Business Alliance were unusually supportive of their venture, says Joe – so much so that he and Adam purchased the building across the street after Eye Opener was underway. They’re planning to open a café there, maybe an art gallery and a small bodega.

“We started to think, ‘What else can we do to help make Sunnyslope happen?’” Joe remembers. “So, we’re planning to buy more buildings. We want to see this block become a row of artistic businesses.”

Others in their circle have taken note of the McCallums’ Eye Opener success. Scottsdale architect Chris Ackerlund of Paradigm Shift Design recently purchased the building two doors down and plans to move his business there.

When Valley developer Erick Harrell decided to open a confectionery, he headed for Sunnyslope. “I’ve always liked the views from here,” says the Candy and Chocolate Co. owner, who’s lived in Phoenix off and on for decades. “The homes are amazing – huge ranch houses with irrigated lawns. The acquisition cost is lower than any new-build cost would have been. We bought a run-down building and renovated it.”

Candy and Chocolate Co. owner Erick Harrell and his wife, Chelsea Murphy; Photo by Alyssa Buruato
Candy and Chocolate Co. owner Erick Harrell and his wife, Chelsea Murphy; Photo by Alyssa Buruato

Harrell sells to Costco, Safeway and Albertson’s stores, but his favorite customers are the locals who wander in for a box of taffy. He’s hired many of them to work in his shop. “Sunnyslope provides an amazing workforce,” says Harrell, who likes to drive a vintage truck around the Slope, handing out candy samples. “There’s a very strong work ethic among the people who live here. Everyone is rooting for everyone else to do well.”

Well, maybe not everyone.

“The Internet forums about Sunnyslope always devolve into someone complaining about how trashy the neighborhood is,” says Hermanson, who attended Sunnyslope High in the ’80s. She left for the east coast not long after but returned to Phoenix in 2007 and made a beeline for her old neighborhood. She bought a house there.

Hermanson, whose father still resides in her childhood home, says some of those Internet gripers live in Sunnyslope themselves. She gets it. “When we were growing up here, there were weird little vintage shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and dive bars. There was the crazy monkey doctor and houses with folk art all over their front yards. It was all arty, outsider people, and a healthy punk scene full of interesting misfits.”

She’s concerned about the weirdos getting crowded out, but more concerned about what’s behind it. “I’m worried about racism. This area always had a lot of ethnic and economic diversity. White people and brown people and some black people, living on the same street, and up the street were the rich people. But gentrification means more expensive real estate that working-class people can’t afford. Diversity has always been our superpower. Without it, what is Sunnyslope?

“Tempe used to have its own vibe,” Hermanson continues. “Now you go there, and it looks like an outdoor shopping mall. Sunnyslope has that same opportunity for growth, and the next building boom could really change us. And not in a good way.”

That being said, no one will be mistaking Sunnyslope for North Scottsdale just yet. The recovery is still in its infancy. Tenements and run-down commercial properties are plentiful. And crime, though lower than in the past, is still a nagging problem. Visit the Phoenix Police Department’s online crime-incidence “hot spot map” (phoenix.gov/police/resources-information/crime-stats-maps) and you’ll find troubling dabs of yellow (“moderate”) and orange (“moderately high”) around Dunlap Avenue. These are the color codes Phoenix PD uses to demonstrate property crimes and incidents of physical assault – and they show that Sunnyslope, while not as crime-ravaged as portions of West Phoenix along the I-17 or Downtown, still has some work to do.

But even if crime disappears altogether, Reiner – a former Sunnyslope Historical Society board member – isn’t worried about the weird getting gentrified out of Sunnyslope. “I don’t think it can be,” she says. “The people here like the funkiness they have. They don’t want hustle-bustle, and if anyone tries to bring it, they’ll put the brakes on that.”

Reiner doesn’t think it matters whether Sunnyslope finally gets its act together or not. What counts is that it’s maintained its own identity for more than a century.

“When’s the last time you heard someone talking about Alhambra or Moon Valley?” she asks. “Sunnyslope has its own mountain with a giant S painted on it. It has its own historical museum. This isn’t just a neighborhood. Sunnyslope is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s not going anywhere.”