In Signal Hill, size counts. Being a 2.2-square-mile island surrounded by a much larger city has left the oil town without an identity.
Enter the ZIP Code as civic soul.
Until now, the small city with big dreams has shared three ZIP Codes with parts of Long Beach, which dwarfs it with 49 times more people and big-city problems like higher crime.
That has cost the working-class community higher insurance premiums, mistaken utility charges and lost mail--even caused grocery chains to stay away. City Hall has struggled to collect its full share of sales tax from the state, which sometimes gives it instead to Long Beach.
More profound than mail snags, residents said in a city survey, the lack of a ZIP Code has robbed Signal Hill of a sense of place.
"The first thing you get," said longtime Signal Hill Police Capt. Mary Risinger, "is, 'Where the hell is Signal Hill?' If they know it, they say, 'Oh, isn't that the city where the black football player died?' "
The city's 12-year effort to get its own five-digit mail address will culminate when results of a federally mandated postal survey of Signal Hill mail customers are announced next week.
Signal Hill's is the story of ZIP Code power, not for a Beverly Hills but for a humble oil town of 9,330 residents. "The little city," said Mayor Larry Forester, "that could and did."
Striking change has occurred in the city, once made famous as America's richest oil field and later made notorious by the 1981 jail death of a college athlete.
The case of Ron Settles tainted the town's image for years, and may still tarnish it, particularly among African Americans, who comprise 13% of its population. The remainder, according to the 2000 census: white, 45%; Hispanic, 26%; and Asian, 16%.
The Cal State Long Beach football player was arrested by Signal Hill police for speeding and booked into the city jail. He was later found hanged in his cell.
Police insisted that Settles committed suicide. But his family, represented by attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., won a $760,000 wrongful death settlement.
Afterward, police commanders left the department and a new chief cleaned house, Risinger and other officers said.
Still, a reputation lingers among some outsiders that Signal Hill is mostly oil tanks, roughnecks and rednecks.
Yet startling change is impossible to miss, and not just the African American city councilman who has served as mayor.
A $1-million estate, other pricey hilltop homes and a Mercedes-Benz dealership are being built. Signal Hill is among California's top 10 cities for highest per capita sales tax revenue--considered the civic cash cow--thanks to its thriving auto row, Costco and Home Depot.
Hundreds of Wells Still Produce Oil
That Signal Hill lacks strong identity is curious considering its past. It incorporated in 1924.
Three years earlier, in 1921, the first oil gusher drew 15,000 spectators in a day. The gleeful discovery would turn Los Angeles County into the world's fifth-largest oil producer. Of about 3,000 wells in Signal Hill, about 600 remain and continue to produce oil.
Today, Signal Hill remains remarkable, but for different reasons.
Three of its five City Council members are openly gay, although homosexual rights was not a campaign issue.
That makes Signal Hill one of only three small cities in America with majority gay city councils, according to the Advocate, a gay-oriented publication. West Hollywood and Wilton Manors, Fla., are the others.
Signal Hill may have the only U.S. mayor known to have AIDS. Diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and AIDS in 1994, Forester, a retired engineer who often worked with ocean oil platforms, ran for office with the aim of shepherding hilltop development.
"It always irritates me when someone brings up the few negative things in the past," the New York transplant said with a sigh.
"Yes, they happened, but there is so much else. My guess is that the city is 20% gay, and clearly if you look at the council, things have changed. If this isn't a tolerant place, where is?"
The prospect of its own ZIP Code arrives just as Signal Hill seems on the verge of coming into its own--to the surprise of many.
Ranata and Allen Ralston moved in November from coastal Long Beach to a trilevel townhouse on the hill. Though smaller, the home has spectacular ocean views from every room and seems custom designed to display their substantial art collection.
"When I told my bridge group we were moving to Signal Hill," said Ranata Ralston, Santa Catalina Island visible out a bedroom window, "They said, 'Why would you move from the water to the ghetto?' "
She smiles and admits that she initially had to persuade her husband to consider moving inland.
"People just don't know how it's changed," she said of Signal Hill. "I think it's still kind of a secret."
Geography Hinders Struggle for Identity