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You Are Where You Live : Neighborhoods by the Numbers: How ZIP Codes Can Pigeonhole People Like Widgets in a Digit Factory

April 16, 1989|DIANNE KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

And you thought you were unique.

You may mention tangibles like your fingerprints. You've never seen any others like them.

Or perhaps your identity rests with the psyche. Who else could have dreamed what you did last night?

Well, wake up, America. It's time you knew.

For years now, the federal government has had your number. Fact is, the government actually assigned you your number.

The secret to your soul? Contemplate your ZIP code.

Did you know, for example, that residents of 91108, otherwise known as San Marino, are four times more likely than the average American to use an American Express card, buy a new convertible and spend lots of money on custom-made draperies?

Or that those who live in 92629, a.k.a. Dana Point, are not into bowling, menthol cigarettes and clipping coupons?

OK, so maybe the system isn't fail-proof. Even those living in the same household, let alone the same ZIP code, have been known to disagree about a few things.

But geo-demographics, the blending of geography and demography, has revolutionized the way thousands of organizations--advertisers, political groups, media and financial institutions among them--look at the nation.

That's why residents of one ZIP code are offered a pre-approved credit card and others are not, why your neighbor just down the block--but in a different ZIP code--may pay more than you for the same automobile insurance policy and why your mailbox is stuffed with coupons for pizza and your friend's with offers to subscribe to Smithsonian magazine.

Mass Market Myth

In other words, the mass market is a myth. Instead, think of a nation of 40 "clusters"--with catchy names like Furs & Stationwagons, Shotguns & Pickups, Young Influentials and Bohemian Mix--and then connect them to the nation's 42,396 ZIP codes.

That's what social scientist-turned-entrepreneur Jonathan Robbin did back in 1974 with his Claritas Cluster System, feeding esoteric data from the U.S. Census and other sources into a computer and then pigeonholing Americans into "life style segments" ranked according to a "ZIP Quality" scale of affluence.

ZIP codes classified as Blue Blood Estates, for example, have a ZIP Quality rank of 1, while Public Assistance is at the bottom with 40. But income isn't all that the constantly updated Claritas system--and others that have sprung up since--is concerned with.

Working from the assumption that people tend to live near others who are like them, a ZIP code, the theory goes, can classify people according to their tastes in everything from politics, to religion to mustard.

"If you tell me your ZIP code," Robbin said from his office in Alexandria, Va., "I can predict what you eat, drink, drive--even think."

Journalist Michael J. Weiss, author of "The Clustering of America," an exhaustive look at the Claritas system and its implications, believes clustering is the most insightful way to categorize American diversity.

"People in the same cluster have similar habits, backgrounds and values. It is my contention that in America, we really speak 40 different languages in terms of what we buy, what we read and what we think about."

Not that this bit of news always goes over big with the clusterees .

"I like to think of myself as atypical," said one indignant matron outside her Tudor style residence in ZIP code 90077, which you may know as Bel-Air, but which the Claritas computer software calls 100% Blue Blood Estates. "What makes me atypical? I'm better."

But yes, she conceded, she fits the profile. She played tennis more than 10 times last year, she travels abroad, she's health-conscious, she charges big on her American Express Card, drinks imported wine and has more than two phone lines to connect her to the outside world.

Likewise, according to her ZIP profile, she is not very likely to buy a car battery at a car parts store, to be a fan of professional wrestling or to drink inordinate amounts of cola drinks.

And surely, she is asked, she doesn't own a pickup truck?

"Um, well, at the vineyard we do."

But putting that little glitch aside, a tour through 90077--and even an occasional chat with its elusive residents--reveals it to be quintessential Blue Blood Estates, a cluster to which only 0.59% of U.S. households belong.

Residents here do not hang out by the fence together, nor organize many block parties. At the end of a dead end street, instead of empty beer cans a visitor found a drained bottle of vintage Pouilly Fuisse that had yet to be cleared away by a cleaning crew.

"This place is about as unneighborly as it gets," said another 90077 resident caught off guard in his driveway.

"I could stand here and be killed and the guy up there wouldn't care," he said with a sweep of his arm toward a neighboring manicured estate. "People here have no interest in each other. They are too important for that, or they think they are."

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