WEST HOLLYWOOD — The letters dribble on back in ones and twos, marked by travel and rejection, each time nudging city leaders and residents toward the same irritating conclusion: Hard as it tries, West Hollywood gets no respect.
The culprit, people around town have decided, is the ZIP code. Or more precisely, the ZIP codes. Four different Los Angeles ZIP codes, which predate West Hollywood's incorporation in 1984, dice the two-square-mile city into tiny pieces and swallow them.
Postal customers in the city complain of chronic late deliveries and mail too often returned as undeliverable--address unknown or inaccurate--even when it's addressed properly. Then, as if the proud little city did not exist at all, there are times when the Post Office sticks on address labels changing letters bound for "West Hollywood" to "Los Angeles."
Critics say that besides snarling the mail, the system complicates local record-keeping and makes it extra hard to sell West Hollywood, the concept.
"We are our own city and I feel we should have our own ZIP code," said City Councilwoman Abbe Land, who sponsored a recent council resolution asking the U.S. Postal Service for a single ZIP code matching city borders. "We're being divided. Many people are proud to be in West Hollywood and they want to be recognized."
"We've been around long enough. We've worked hard enough for our identity," added Thomas Crail, executive director of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "God knows we've spent enough money on identity."
The problem appears to go beyond ZIP codes and into the realm of municipal self-esteem. After all, this is a city that was split in two last fall when Pacific Bell established a new telephone area code--the line between 213 and 310 runs right along La Cienega Boulevard.
And bear in mind that the pop queen of ZIP codes--Beverly Hills, 90210--is right next door. Small wonder, then, that the West Hollywood City Council would like to strengthen its identity by getting a ZIP code--just one, please--of its own.
Only one of the ZIP codes affecting West Hollywood, 90069, is based at a post office that sits in the city. It covers most of the broad western end of the city and extends north into Los Angeles. Most of the city's eastern half is included in 90046, though the tip juts into the area covered by 90038. The southwestern corner, south of Melrose Avenue, is included in 90048.
Under pressure from the Washington-based National League of Cities and congressional allies, the Postal Service last year came up with a process allowing communities to petition for ZIP code changes. The system is still largely untested and it is unclear how well it will work, said Sandra Yamane, a legislative counsel for the league.
Residents of Culver City, which is served by nine ZIP codes, petitioned last August to be able to use Culver City as part of their address even in the five ZIP codes based in Los Angeles. "So far nothing has happened," said Joan Dean, a city projects coordinator.
Under the process, West Hollywood's request will require a survey of residents and businesses. If there is support for the change, the Postal Service will study how much it would cost to reprogram postal computers around the country, redesign local delivery routes and, if necessary, build a new post office, according to David Mazer, a Postal Service spokesman in Los Angeles.
Although city officials and others say they have complained repeatedly to the Postal Service, Mazer said he was unaware of problems in West Hollywood. But he said that mail should be expected to move efficiently, regardless of whether ZIP codes match city boundaries.
As for West Hollywood's existence, Mazer said that the postal system's optical readers had been reprogrammed to accept West Hollywood as a proper destination. But that has not completely stemmed the address labels insisting on Los Angeles as the correct designation.
Mazer said that the five-digit ZIP codes were designed to route mail, not to mark political borders or give identity to a community.
"That's something that a community wants, and we understand that and would like to make it happen. But we won't do it if it's going to cost a lot of money," Mazer said. "Just because communities change their boundaries doesn't mean we have to change their ZIP code boundaries."
For people dependent on mail and ZIP codes, the current arrangement can be worse than an irritant.
Grace C. Callahan, whose Social Security and state-employee retirement checks are addressed to her West Hollywood home, blames the ZIP code system for what she says are regular delays with her mail. She said she has complained to postal officials when her mail has been labeled with address corrections.
"They tell me it should be Los Angeles," Callahan said. "I'm tired of people telling me where I live when I've lived in this house for 20 years. I know where I am."