I’ve lived in several gayborhoods over the years, and have always sought out similar communities while traveling because of their inclusive, vibrant mix of dining, drinking and shopping.
In Central Phoenix that means the one-mile stretch of Seventh Avenue between Indian School and Camelback roads. A mix of commercial and residential, it passes through the historic Woodlea Melrose neighborhood, which dates back to the 1940s.
Tom Simplot was a Phoenix City Councilman from 2003-2014 and the first openly gay member to serve. A resident of Yaple Park, an adjacent historic district, he called the area “ground zero” for his campaign and the focus of much of his work to highlight the neighborhood’s identity.
“During my tenure, I worked very closely with the Seventh Avenue Merchants Association, the LGBTQ community and the adjoining historic neighborhoods. We launched the 7th Avenue Street Fair in 2004; the annual festival now draws thousands of attendees.”
The iconic “Melrose Arch” was key to the defining the neighborhood’s eclectic character.
“The merchants and the neighbors all agreed that signage—much like that found in neighborhoods in San Diego—would foster a sense of community and would help market and brand the Melrose District,” Simplot says. “The pink squiggle in the sign represents the significance of the LGBTQ community.”
What business does Simplot frequent? He loves Copper Star Coffee and Figs Home & Garden, a furniture store with global imports, along with Off Chute Too for funky personal toys and cards, and Wag N’ Wash for the pet set.
The prominence of the district is especially gratifying to Mike Fornelli, executive director of Phoenix Pride.
According to Fornelli, the diversity, openness and welcoming vibe of the Melrose District led to its selection as the site for one of Phoenix’s two rainbow crosswalks, at Seventh and Glenrosa avenues (the other is located at Central Avenue and Portland Street in downtown Phoenix).
The rainbow crosswalks, which were unveiled in July 2018, “serve a bright and lasting symbol of our LGBTQ presence in the city and our past, present and future contributions to the community as a whole.”
From a generational standpoint, this is an equal opportunity gayborhood too. Charlie’s, a country-themed nightclub, draws plenty of millennials to dance, while The Rock, a drag and cabaret room, has a loyal following of boomers. Stacy’s @ Melrose is the neighborhood's version of Cheers, a friendly neighborhood bar that’s equally inviting to everyone—including allies.
“The role of the Melrose District is one of unification,” Fornelli says. “The level of acceptance of the LGBTQ community … is a result of the vibrant local economy and the neighborhoods and businesses working together to create an atmosphere of tolerance and a safe space for anyone who visits.”
Marshall Shore, Arizona’s self-proclaimed “hip historian,” has lived in the area for 19 years—since "before it was the gayborhood.” He says the region's LGBTQ history dates back to First Nations people and the idea of two spirits.
“Fast forward to the 1950s and George Quaintance whose art adorned the cover of many a campy '50s muscle magazine. He did a lot of paintings of half-naked cowboys at his Rancho Siesta, right here in Phoenix.”
The level of acceptance of the LGBTQ community … is a result of the vibrant local economy and the neighborhoods and businesses working together. –Mike Fornelli, Executive Director of Phoenix Pride
Like me, Shore loves Retro Ranch for their well-curated vintage furniture, housewares and clothing and “epic window displays.” Shore also recommends Sweet Salvage, a “once-a month shabby chic extravaganza that brings people in from across the Valley of the Sun.”
And when you need to refuel, Shore suggests The Refuge as “a great place to grab coffee or a bite to eat and rest up for the many shops along the Melrose Curve, our antique alley and the best place to find shops selling mid-century and other eclectic treasures.”
Melrose Third Thursdays is a great introduction to the area, with food trucks, music and extended shopping hours. The camaraderie between patrons and vendors is palpable.
LGBTQ businesses have been a catalyst for development, including The Curve at Melrose, a 204-unit luxury apartment community in the heart of gayborhood that has brought more residents and business to the area since opening in spring 2018.
“I always refer to Melrose as the starting point for gay tourists,” says Simplot. “There are funky shops, great restaurants and fantastic night life all within walking distance from each other. I would compare Melrose to early Hillcrest in San Diego, or Wilton Manors in Fort Lauderdale."
About the author: Suzanne Wright
Suzanne Wright first stepped into the Sonoran Desert some 30 years ago and was immediately smitten. She has written for national publications such as National Geographic Traveler, USA Today and American Way, but she’s happiest exploring and writing about Arizona for regional outlets like AAA Arizona Highroads, Arizona Highways and the Official Travel Guide to Greater Phoenix.