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The first in our two-part series about Sunnyslope. Part 2, titled ‘Architecture and Creation in Sunnyslope,’ was published June 1st, on azarchitecture!
The luminance of Sunnyslope, an annexed-but-not-quite a town area within the City of Phoenix reveals itself from afar — in the form of a mountain. It’s a place that people from all over the valley have heard of or, at least, have spotted the mountain face from far away. How do they recognize a bluff, you ask? More on that later… The longer you observe, the more you can conclude this neighborhood, which generally spans from 19th Avenue to 16th Street and Cactus Road to Northern Avenue, exudes civic pride.
The history of Sunnyslope is notable enough that a citizen Historical Society and Museum, complete with a resident historian, operates within its boundaries. And, the more you study the area, the more you can understand why. As the spoils of places like Arcadia, Downtown and the Uptown Phoenix area on 7th Street are plundered and redeveloped, many transplants are beginning to find an underrated alternative in Sunnyslope. Now, more about that mountain…
Sunnyslope “S” Mountain
If you’re on approach coming into Sky Harbor Airport from the East side of the Valley, you can make out this 1,500ft mountain face (which is situated on the northern-most face of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve) with its distinctive bold white typeface marked with an ‘S.’ Similarly a trek up South Mountain reveals the ‘S’ to the hiker, as far away as 27 miles away, and maybe farther if your eye catches it at just the right moment while traveling west on the 202.
The origins of this landmark harken back to the early days of Sunnyslope High School. On a hot day in December 1954, a handful of Juniors and Seniors on Student Council, using old World War II walkie-talkies to coordinate, whitewashed the large letter onto the mountain to denote their school. A fever of school pride was a motivating factor, aided by the inspiration of seeing lettering belonging on different high schools everywhere but in the valley. The mountain became a landmark of sorts for students, cruising south on Central Avenue, acting as a North Star to guide them back home, if they got lost.
They accidentally started a tradition at the high school which continues to this day. Each year, freshmen climb the mountain and reapply the decades-thick white paint during homecoming week. You can mark your calendar for this time of year, usually around late September to October on a Thursday, where residents of the houses below can hear the faint, but audible commotion of the school’s freshmen painting their mountain white again.
By 2011, the young area of Sunnyslope marked their first centennial. To mark the occasion as a young, but growing community, the area’s Historical Society submitted the mountain for Historic Preservation designation status, which Phoenix City Council approved with a unanimous vote.
Prior to its historic designation, John Croteau, a resident and former principal of Sunnyslope High School, made the bold statement that ‘S’ Mountain was a secret to the neighborhood’s success and status. “That ‘S’ draws all eyes to our community,” he said, in the Phoenix New Times article, “and we don’t want it to fail.”
“You want the eateries, we got the eateries!”
A scrappy resourceful attitude has always influenced Sunnyslope’s direction. And for a state that’s valued the entrepreneurial spirit of small businesses which outnumber the chains, the neighborhood contributes to that same philosophy. The next stage of this is underway as the character of the neighborhood shifts toward the young professional and their family.
In 2019, a renowned local BBQ joint arrived in Sunnyslope: Little Miss BBQ. The Tempe institution expanded their brand to a high-traffic location, where the flow of the nearby major intersection, branches into five directions. For Scott Holmes, the chef and restauranteur behind Little Miss BBQ, who was already known for motivating people in to dine at areas off the beaten path, the underrated location was attractive to him. It also helped that Holmes already lived in the area.
“There’s a lot of great areas, but I also wanted to go somewhere where it was a bit underserved, which fits Sunnyslope to a tee,” he said in a Phoenix Business Journal story. “We just decided while the market’s really hot, why don’t we go somewhere that’s central where a lot of people live. Sunnyslope is a funny neighborhood, it’s one of those transitional neighborhoods.”
In the last decade this trickle of investment increased into a drizzle. Places like Timo’s, North Mountain Brewery, Il Posto, and Spoke & Wheel are the new neighborhood staples. These restauranteurs flocked to Sunnyslope as part of a new wave of dining, building upon the earlier successes of businesses, like Karl’s Bakery, Grinder’s Coffee, Los Reyes del la Torta and Via Delosantos.
Hold my spot in line — my kid needs to attend this school!
A strange sight happened at the area’s namesake high school in the first days of 2020. Sunnyslope High School, the impetus for a white ‘S’ permanently affixed on their nearby mountain, hosted a few hundred parents who lined up in front of the administration office. Their intention wasn’t to obtain tickets for the next big tentpole film, nor was it their desire to buy a new iPhone. For all the parents, who camped for 36 hours to stake a spot in line, the public school’s pedigree, both an “A” rating from Arizona’s Department of Education and one of Arizona and the nation’s perennially top-rated public high schools, promised superior education for their children that rivaled schools slightly less out of their way.