For decades, Signal Hill's struggle for an independent identity has been straitjacketed by geography. How the community came to be surrounded by Long Beach is, as with most things Signal Hill, the result of its black gold.
Hundreds of years before drilling began, the slope was populated by Native Americans, who sent smoke signals from its peak. Historical references note that even then, oil factored into daily life on the hill. The Indians used it to waterproof canoes.
Commercial oil drilling changed the community, which had depended on sheep, cattle and flower farming.
Long Beach began collecting a barrel tax on the oil. When oil company executives sought relief from the state, they were told that incorporation was the only way to dodge the tax. And so in 1924, Signal Hill became a city. The woman who led the cityhood drive, Jessie Nelson, became the first mayor. Local historians say she was California's first female mayor.
A grab for remaining oil drilling rights ensued between the cities, creating Signal Hill's jigsaw shape.
The town has never had the proverbial Main Street, a downtown anchor. Into that void sprouted world-famous Curley's Cafe, which opened in 1932 to serve oil roustabouts and construction workers.
Curley's sits at the intersection of Signal Hill's past and present.
Out in the parking lot, towering oil derricks ee-ah! loudly. Across this corner of Cherry Avenue at Willow Street are Costco and Home Depot. Opposite Curley's is the new Food-4-Less and Starbucks.
The mood is small-town diner. If you want to see almost anyone in town, come here. A typical cast of customers one recent morning includes silver-haired oil men, younger cops, the mayor, the town historian, old-coot gadflies and newcomer contractors, in town to build the mansions.
Glancing at a mug covered by a rainbow, 77-year-old Robert Lee, an oilman from Shreveport, La., cracks a joke. "Oh," he says with a wink, "you got the fruity cup." The waitress chides him and says, "You're surrounded by gay folks, so what's the big deal?" Lee shrugs. "No big deal actually," he says. "I'm just not one of 'em. Don't really matter to me."
While gays may not be championed in every quarter, a live-and-let-live tolerance prevails, Forester said. He speculates that Signal Hill's spectacular views have attracted gay residents. Also, he said, Signal Hill is close to Long Beach, which has at least 20 gay bars and a large gay population.
It is not that, but growth on the hill, gossip and ZIP Code gripes that pepper the diner's din.
The city government expects it will get its ZIP Code. A 1997 city survey returned by 22% of Signal Hill mail customers showed 75% in favor. Results of the current federal postal survey, a mandatory assessment before any ZIP Code actions are taken, will be announced Jan. 15.
Those mail customers who oppose a changed ZIP Code point to the cost of replacing stationery, invoices and advertising. Many of the car dealerships already use Long Beach in their signs anyway because more people know where it is.
Signal Hill leaders have lobbied for the ZIP Code for 12 years. The U.S. Postal Service repeatedly denied the city's plea, citing Signal Hill's lack of a post office. Each ZIP Code requires one, said Long Beach Postmaster Ed Jenkins.
Much Resistance to New ZIP Code
The city offered property on which to build itself a post office. For a variety of reasons, those deals fell through. The powerful union representing the 600 mail carriers in the Long Beach area also resisted the ZIP Code change because it would disrupt so many routes in a complicated seniority system.
Given all that, it startled many involved when the U.S. postmaster general ordered the new Signal Hill postal survey last month.
U.S. Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach), who had spent a decade fighting for the ZIP Code, met with the postmaster general for anthrax discussions and only in passing mentioned the Signal Hill matter.
Jenkins said the postmaster general decided that an existing mail distribution center could be used for Signal Hill's mail--at least for the time being. The union and Jenkins believe a new facility costing up to $4 million may be required, but many details remain to be worked out.
"When a miracle happens," City Manager Ken Farsing said, laughing, "You don't ask why."