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ZIP Codes Hinder Community Identity

Do you live in an unincorporated community with a zip code that is connected with the name of your community? If so, consider yourself lucky. A community's name matters - people can identify with it, it provides a sense of place. There are 482 cities in California, so many that people tend to assume the name attached to a ZIP code means the place is a city. That's not always true. A postal address isn’t really what identifies a place; it’s merely a tool whereby the Post Office sorts and delivers mail.  Sometimes ZIP codes are just convenient names used by the Post Office. Maybe the ZIP code includes a small segment of a city, even though the preponderance of the included area is unincorporated. Or perhaps a ZIP code might be reflective of the legacy name for a place.

ZIP codes can make a difference in how people understand a community. Consider Sacramento County, within which the largest subordinate population group is the UNcity comprised of many unincorporated urbanized communities. Among the Census Designated Places (CDPs) in the county are several with a ZIP code+name identity: Carmichael (95608), Fair Oaks (95628), North Highlands (95660) and Orangevale (95662) have ZIP codes that use their their community name as the "primary city", yet they are NOT cities. However, CDPs like Arden Arcade (95821, 95825 and 95864), Foothill Farms (95841 and 95842) and Rosemont (95826), though NOT cities, have ZIP codes that use Sacramento as the "primary city" - whether or not the ZIP code has tiny parts of the City of Sacramento in it. Likewise, ZIP code 95827, which straddles the City of Rancho Cordova and unincorporated territory to its west and southwest, is identified as being part of Sacramento. Similarly, in Alameda County,  unincorporated Ashland CDP 's ZIP codes are associated with the City of San Leandro (94578), unincorporated San Lorenzo (94580) and the City of Hayward (94541).  Unincorporated Cherryland CDP's zip codes are connected with unincorporated San Lorenzo (94580) and the City of Hayward (94541). Meanwhile, in unincorporated Castro Valley CDP, two ZIP codes (94546 and 94552) are reflective of its own community name and another (94578) is associated with the City of San Leandro.

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Menifee - population 106,401 - has been a city since 2008

The City of Menifee, in Riverside County, is one of California's "newest" cities - "new" in that it was formed 15 years ago (California has not formed a new city since 2011).  Created out of several legacy communities, Menifee had an identity problem. The city had 3 ZIP codes that were associated with communities other than Menifee. After years of ridicule and even a petition drive, city officials eventually voted to press the U.S. Postal Service, by letter, to designate Menifee the primary location for those ZIP codes. Ultimately, as a Menifee City Council member pointed out during their Council discussion, as long as you get the zip code right, the Post Office really doesn’t care what city name you list on your mail. (David Downey, "Menifee's ZIP codes will bear the city's name", The Press-Enterprise, 01/17/2018).

Post Office scanners just read the street number and zip code. Which is to say the "city name" associated with a ZIP code doesn't really matter to the Post Office. At the Advocates for Arden Arcade's  December 2019 Community Forum, people were encouraged to write anything other than “Sacramento” in their return address. It was explained that you could write “Shang-Ri-La” or “Nirvana” or “Frontierland” or any other place name and you will still get your mail. But when you order something online, computer programs typically force you to use the city name from the Post Office's data base, regardless of whether you live in that city. Adding to the confusion, when you get or renew your driver’s license the DMV will let residents of unincorporated areas like Arden Arcade claim either Arden Arcade or Sacramento as their residence. The bottom line is that, although ZIP codes are meaningful to the Post Office, ZIP codes can mislead the public about community identity.  That's not conducive to civic engagement. It doesn't help build community. People should not be made to wonder who is in charge of their community or how their local issues can be resolved.

Unincorporated communities do not deserve to be imperceptible, undetectible and obscured. Given that ZIP codes are built from US Census Tract data, one would think it there would be no problem synchronizing ZIP codes with CDPs that more accurately describe unincorporated communities. Technology exists that can do that. But there has to be a will to make the change. Unless that will comes to life, as it did in Menifee, California's unincorporated places will remain behind the ZIP code eight-ball.

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