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, president and CEO of the Arizona Multihousing Association, 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 Justin Owen, executive director of Phoenix Pride.
“Because Arizona is perceived nationally as a conservative state, many people don’t think we have a gayborhood,” he says. “But Phoenix as a city is open, affirmative and welcoming. It required a lot of forward movement, but Melrose has really blossomed over the last few years. And with the proactive real estate market, the rebounding economy and the continued revitalization of downtown, things are really progressing.”
Age wise, this is an equal opportunity gayborhood. 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 straights.
A recent post-Orlando shooting memorial united the straight and gay community, and this year’s Pride Parade broke attendance records, Owen said.
Says Owen, “Melrose has an identity as a rallying place. There a nice blending that’s happening here.”
Marshall Shore, Arizona’s self-proclaimed “hip historian,” has lived in the area for 17 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 1950’s and George Quaintance whose art adorned the cover of many a campy 50’s muscle magazine. He did a lot of paintings of half-naked cowboys at his Rancho Siesta, right here in Phoenix.”
“Because Arizona is perceived nationally as a conservative state, many people don’t think we have a gayborhood. But Phoenix as a city is open, affirmative and welcoming."
Like me, Shore loves Retro Ranch for their well-curated vintage furniture, housewares and clothing and “epic window displays.” Shore also recommends Zinnias at Melrose, the largest mall in Central Phoenix with a wide-range of items, and 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 a new 300-unit luxury apartment community under construction in the heart of Melrose that will bring more residents to the area and spur additional growth.
“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.