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Sunnyslope — on the upswing

Alison King

It’s a revered tradition among teenagers: Every freshman class at Sunnyslope High School forms a line snaking up the town mountain to help the seniors put a fresh coat of whitewash on the gigantic S built onto the mountainside more than 50 years ago.

That mountaintop S can be seen from almost 30 miles away, and it’s a symbol of home to those who grew up in or live in this north-central Phoenix neighborhood that is striving to remake itself.

Those who come back to visit say they know they’re home when they see it. Those who attended Sunnyslope High love to recall the paint-hurling antics that went on when it was their class’s turn to whitewash. And it’s a mental GPS point for current residents, who say they live “to the left of the S” or “right below the S.”

Helen Dunlap

Recently, the Phoenix Historic Property Registry put its official stamp on this beloved symbol.

At a ceremony attended by about 150 local folks and dignitaries last month, a plaque from the registry attesting to the historic status of the S was unveiled at the base of the mountain, as part of the celebration of the town’s centennial. The S was started by Sunnyslope High School teens in 1954, several of whom participated in last month's ceremony.

Although the idea of preserving the S came from the musings of Halim Mokbel, the owner of the popular Eye Opener restaurant, the driving force behind getting it done was Pat Wilkinson, president of the Sunnyslope Historical Society.

“I started making phone calls, and everybody said ‘You can’t do that.’ I just kept saying, ‘Why not?’” said Wilkinson.

She enlisted the help of Phoenix councilman Bill Gates and his staff, and they discovered that, in spite of many historical elements of the neighborhood, nothing from Sunnyslope was on the city’s historic property registry. The S is the first, Wilkinson said, with the historic-preservation overlay zoning approved by the city council, ensuring that a certain number of feet around the S cannot be developed.

A neighborhood boost

Residents and business owners at the dedication ceremony

Helen Dunlap

The new historic status gives a boost to the Sunnyslope neighborhood, which is now on the upswing from a period when it was plagued by prostitution traffic and drug deals.

Its roots run deep. The community began 100 years ago as people migrated to its dry, sunny clime on the outskirts of Phoenix to cure their tuberculosis. Eventually, its dramatic hilly terrain encouraged an influx of residents who built homes to take advantage of its views and its seven-mile proximity to downtown.

But the area fell into a decline in the 1960s, and, by the mid-1980s, it was termed a “blighted area” by the city of Phoenix. For a while, said Wilkinson, “it was thought of as the place to go when you couldn’t afford anything else.”

Several attempts were made to turn the area around, and, most recently, the neighborhood finally seems to be on the rebound. Its downtown views, eclectic architecture, reasonable real estate prices and short commute are attracting diverse residents from artists to executives.

Improving the commercial heart

Recently, the neighborhood received another boost: Phoenix is one of three areas in the nation — along with Rhode Island and Richmond, Va. — to be targeted by a new program to revitalize urban commercial corridors. The Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, a part of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), has provided a $100,000 grant for economic analysis, consultant fees and overhead to help identify what needs to be done and when.

The idea is this: The Institute is dispatching experienced consultants to offer technical assistance, support and mentoring to help the local townspeople develop ways to improve the commercial heart of their area. The strategies they generate ideally will be incorporated into broader community development work.

Helen Dunlap

In Sunnyslope, these consultants, working with staff members from the LISC office in Phoenix, are helping local organizations to improve business conditions on Hatcher Road, one of the neighborhood’s two commercial areas — and one that flows right by the base of the S mountain. (LISC is also working with another commercial area of a Phoenix suburb, Main Street in Mesa.)

Groups such as the Hatcher Road Improvement Committee and the Desert Mission Neighborhood Renewal are planning, with LISC help, to foster a pedestrian-oriented streetscape with better lighting, wider sidewalks, and attractive landscaping. The improvements are intended to encourage economic development, attract shoppers, and set design standards for businesses on the corridor.

Critical funding for corridor improvements on Hatcher Road is being provided by State Farm Insurance through Phoenix LISC.

The goal: A thriving business corridor

LISC’s emphasis on commercial corridor revitalization is a result of its philosophy that a thriving business area boosts a community by providing jobs, encouraging home ownership and reducing crime. It’s a key to helping distressed communities turn themselves around.

Right now, Hatcher is more like “a rural road that has a collection of odds and ends on it,” said Helen Dunlap, a senior LISC consultant.  “There’s an understanding that a healthy business community along Hatcher would anchor the residential and attract more investment in the community and the corridor.”

Many area residents already come to Hatcher because such services as the local hospital and one of two main branches of the Arizona Humane Society are located there, said Dunlap. And, of course, so is the very active Sunnyslope Historical Society and Museum.

In spite of her devotion to Sunnyslope’s history, museum president Wilkinson did not grow up in the neighborhood. She moved there from south of Phoenix 10 years ago after her husband died. She was looking for a smaller house in a lively community, and, she said, she found it.

In a recent article in Phoenix’s New Times newspaper, resident Christine Plante summed up Sunnyslope this way:

“The real difference between Sunnyslope and other parts of town is that these people behave like a blended community. In the rest of the Valley, it’s more about like-minded people living alongside like-minded people. Here, not so much.”

Plante is a resident who runs the neighborhood website. She also moderates the official Sunnyslope Facebook page, which is just one of five Facebook pages devoted to various aspects of the neighborhood. She also works for the J.C. Lincoln North Mountain Hospital, which has been at the heart of caring for the community almost since the days of tuberculosis.

“We’re our own little community with activities like art walks and street fairs,” said Wilkinson. “Like any community, there’s good and there’s bad, and you can make of it what you want. Whether it gets better or worse depends on whether you want to get involved.”

Clearly, Wilkinson got involved. Her next project is completing the preservation of a typical bungalow house from mid-last century that will become part of the museum. She said she’s happy that the S has brought so much publicity to Sunnyslope and to the museum.

Sunnyslope pride

Helen Dunlap

“We put together a little book on people’s memories about the S, and we ordered 90 of them. We sold out in two days.” 

She said, “The community is made up of longtime residents and a lot of people who choose to retire here.” People are seeing that “we have million-dollar homes here with gorgeous views, and people are starting to buy the old homes and preserve them.”

Recently, Modern Phoenix, an organization devoted to celebrating and preserving mid-century Phoenix architecture, featured the architecture of Sunnyslope in its 7th Annual Home Tour. One of the tours was called “Keep Sunnyslope Quirky.”

But traditions like the S are what make the community special.

Wilkinson said she looks forward not only to seeing the kids whitewashing the S every year, but what comes next:

After the homecoming football game, the football team members, all dressed in black, run up the mountain, chanting school cheers, and light up the S with road flares for all the city to see, a glowing symbol of Sunnyslope pride.


Posted in Commercial and Economic Development, Phoenix

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