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GCU displacing a mobile home park echoes a history of tensions over West Valley development

Periwinkle mobile home park in West Phoenix officially closed at the end of May, its 54 households asked to move out.

The aging park has been in the spotlight for months as it has been put at the center of a fight over the ongoing development of the area by Grand Canyon University, which has been expanding its gated campus in the neighborhood just west of the I-17 for years.

“The last day is May 28, and we have no time to do something, to find a new home, to research,” said Silvia Yanez.

Yanez lived in Periwinkle for the last 12 years. She has six kids who lived there with her. Like most residents, while she owned her mobile home, she didn’t own the land it sat on. That’s now owned by GCU, which plans to build more student housing on the site.

After a months-long campaign to stop it, and failed efforts to get protection from the Phoenix City Council, the families finally had to leave.

“A lot of people talking about ‘GCU is doing this, and this is very good’ and a lot of good things,” Yanez said. “But I don’t want to hear people telling me about GCU doing good things. I want to talk by myself: What is GCU doing with me and my family?”

Silvia’s daughter, Gittzy Romero, is 16 and a sophomore at Alhambra High School. She said knows a few students who are going to GCU when they graduate, and she used to look at the university in her neighborhood in awe.

“We would take field trips to GCU when I was in middle school. When I saw it, it was really amazing. It was huge, and there were all these buildings for different purposes, and the classrooms were big. And now, I realize what it took them to get to there. And it's a sad story,” Romero said.

GCU hired the nonprofit Trellis to help families there relocate and told The Show in a statement it was able to help every family that was willing to work with the school in the process. The city of Phoenix offered help in the form of housing vouchers and rental assistance. State lawmakers stepped in at the last minute to increase the amount residents can receive from the state’s Mobile Home Relocation Fund.

But for Silvia and her family, it was still a loss of community.

“We know everybody in the community. We are like a family. It's amazing, my neighbors. Everybody knows everybody,” she said.

Sal Reza is a longtime activist in the Valley who’s been working to help the residents of Periwinkle through an organization called Barrio Defense Committees.

“This used to have houses, apartment complexes,” he said. “It was a neighborhood, which has been basically destroyed.”

The Show met him recently in the neighborhood, at Little Canyon Park, which is surrounded on three sides by GCU. Across the street, many houses have signs out front that say “no parking.”

To Reza, what happened there is a pattern that’s been repeated throughout Phoenix’s history — and continues today.

“The west side, a lot of the west side, happened when they displaced another area, which was by the airport, the old barrios from the airport and Las Cuatro Milpas,” Reza said. “But mainly, where you see that church standing on the side of 16th Street? That's the only thing that’s standing. The rest is gone.”

But Maryvale and the West Valley are no strangers to this kind of outside development. Anthony Pratcher is a historian at ASU’s honors college. He says this is the story of this historically overlooked part of the Valley.

“The West Valley because of its recent development is often overlooked within Phoenix,” he said.

Pratcher calls himself a West Valley griot, a West African term for storyteller. He grew up in the West Valley, and he wrote his dissertation on the history of this traditionally agricultural community.

“The West Valley really comes into being if we go back to the 19th century because of the development of the Arizona Canal. What winds up happening is that the West Valley then becomes home to a lot of immigrant communities, communities of color, as well as large-scale corporate farming,” he said.

But by the midcentury, it all changed when John F. Long developed Maryvale — Arizona’s first master-planned community. Rows of suburban houses with lawns and kitchen ranges sprang up and sold fast.

“And so you effectively have 100,000 people move to the West Valley in around five or six years,” Pratcher said.

It was largely white people who moved into this largely immigrant community. Pratcher said the issues that resulted still persist today.

The Show spoke more with Pratcher about how those historical tensions are echoed in GCU’s expansion.

GCU sent a lengthy statement in response to this story but did not want to sit down for an interview. In the statement, GCU characterizes its decision to stay on the west side and develop there — instead of in a more affluent suburb — as an investment in the community and part of the school’s mission as a Christian university.

The school says it has made the community safer, increased home prices there, created jobs and supported K-12 education in the area — creating pathways for educational opportunities and high-paying jobs for local students.

You can read GCU’s full statement below.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.