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Our Neighbors, Ourselves: We Are Where We Live : THE CLUSTERING OF AMERICA by Michael J. Weiss (A Tilden Press Book/ Harper & Row: $22.50; 416 pp.; illustrated; 0-06-015790-9)

December 04, 1988|Cella Coffin Morey | Morey, a Los Angeles business writer currently living on the fringe of a New Melting Pot cluster, has worked in advertising and as a marketing communications consultant

But hang onto your Hellman's and spread your Miracle Whip while you can, because "flavor boundaries" have staked out our clusters. A kind of "mayonnaise line" splits America's heartland from coast to coast. "The Mayonnaise Line divides the creamy Hellman's buyers in the South and Northeast from the tart Kraft Miracle Whip lovers in the Midwest and Northwest," Weiss notes. The line (which divides California at Santa Barbara) could be unsettling to a ZQ 21 "Middle America"-bred Miracle Whip devotee transplanted from Marshall, Mich., to a ZQ 18 "New Melting Pot" Los Feliz neighborhood where pumpernickel and rye bread enjoy high usage (along with The New Yorker, mutual funds and wine by the case). A Miracle Whip shortage in Los Angeles might presage a population drift to another "New Melting Pot" neighborhood such as Geary in San Francisco.

The aforementioned Marshall, "a classic 'Middle America' community," is at the country's socioeconomic midpoint, although, because of neighborhood influences of race, ethnicity and urbanization, Weiss finds that no single "Average American" exists. Here, as in corresponding neighborhoods such as Hagerstown, Md., and Oshkosh, Wis., domestic air charters, mail-order catalogues, Plymouth Sundances, pizza mixes and "Newhart" enjoy their finest cluster hours.

Yet "Middle America" is not all-powerful; home to only 3.2% of the nation's households, it's half as populous as ZQ 10, rated "Blue-Chip Blues." However, as Weiss says, by understanding a "Middle America" haven like Marshall--where "there is no 'other side of the tracks,' " a band plays Sousa marches in the park every Thursday in July and life has few extremes--"it is possible to discern an 'average' cluster by using the ZQ scale of social rank."

And there's the author's gentle thought that "in a Marshall, little is eaten, driven or purchased at rates far from the national average . . . Residents know too well that the balance that characterizes Middle America is more precious than the breeze of a cool July night."

Defending America's "brave new clustered world" against the specters of "Orwellian voodoo" and power-brokering product specialists with faith in Americans' "roaring" diversity, Weiss predicts that "tomorrowland" technology will perform such wonders as helping new physicians find high-paying work outside big cities with physician gluts--"in communities with cushy life styles. Not every intern need be sent to a health-care backwater in Tobacco Roads," he adds. (Need any be sent, the reader may wonder.) Also on Weiss' horizon: "general interest" magazines with content shaped according to readers' zip codes, cluster-tailored "video boutique" television instead of a mass medium. Local news with a vengeance!

Like it or not, "The Clustering of America" is here, with all its technological potential for use and abuse. Since knowledge is power, we can thank Weiss for explaining it to us clearly--through a PRIZM.

Flavor Boundaries

Flavor boundaries criss-cross the nation, reflecting the same factors of ethnicity, social rank and household composition that define neighborhood settlement. A kind of "mayonnaise line" separates the creamy Hellman's mayonnaise buyers to the South from the tart Kraft Miracle Whip salad dressing lovers to the North. A marketer of a spicy new dressing would know not to dip below the Mason-Dixon Line to market its product.

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