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

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.”

Not too many surprises here, either. This retired businessman says he likes classical music, subscribes to two newspapers and three business publications, watches public television and always votes Republican. He’s fired up about taxes--there are too many of them--and government interference in general.

“I’m sick of giving money away,” he said, “and of all these bleeding hearts.”

Of course, Bel-Air is just one of several Blue Blood Estates nationwide (others can be found in Lake Forest, Ill., Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Scarsdale, N.Y., to name a few) and that label describes 2.5% of all the households in Los Angeles County, in various ZIP codes.

In Orange County, 1.3% of the households are Blue Blood (most of ZIP code 92705 in North Tustin fits that description) and in San Diego County, the Blue Blood percentage is 0.42, including all of Rancho Santa Fe.

The key to the Claritas (“clarity” in Latin) system is that residents of any given cluster--whether they happen to live in Idaho, or Maine, or wherever--will have more in common with other members of that cluster than with anyone else.

Advocates of the system contend, for example, that a Californian might more accurately describe himself vis-a-vis his cluster than his state.

“There is no such thing as the California life style,” Weiss said. “That’s baloney. Tell me how the California life style explains Watts and Beverly Hills within a few miles of each other?”

So instead of just asking “Where are you from?” a cluster analysis might ask, “What do you buy? What do you eat? And what do you read?” Claritas believes that the answers to these and a slew of other questions better define the essence of who we are.

“You can go to sleep in Palo Alto and wake up in Princeton, N.J., and except for the palm trees, the life styles are identical,” said Weiss, speaking of two communities that fit into the Money & Brains cluster, also the dominant cluster in ZIPs 91604 in Studio City, 90290 in Topanga, 92625 in Corona del Mar and 92663 in Newport Beach.

Moderate Republicans

Live in a Money & Brains cluster--4% of the households in Los Angeles County, 8% in Orange County and 2.9% in San Diego--and you are likely to be a moderate Republican, read magazines like Forbes and Gourmet, drive an expensive foreign car like a Jaguar or a Mercedes and turn up your nose at canned meat spreads and presweetened cold cereal.

Nationwide, the largest percentage of Americans--still only 6.26% of all U.S. households--live in a New Homesteaders cluster. But in Southern California, it’s New Beginnings--one of eight new clusters that evolved after the 1980 census--that’s dominant.

(In Los Angeles County, 13.5% of households fall into this group, while in Orange and San Diego, the percentages are 19.3 and 21.)

Bobby Harris, a 47-year-old machinist and father of seven, doesn’t fit too neatly into this cluster-known for sheltering a high percentage of divorced Americans--but then again, he is not altogether atypical.

Walking down the street of his Hawthorne neighborhood, ZIP 90250, he explained that his move three weeks ago from South-Central Los Angeles into a four bedroom, two bath apartment represents a whole new life for him and his family.

“The area is better,” he said, “I haven’t seen any gang violence yet. My kids go to better schools here. . . . I want my family to have the best. I want my kids to have a college education.”

Home Renters

Residents of New Beginnings, according to Claritas, are 1.6 times more likely than the average American to have rented a home in the past year, almost twice as likely to have bought New Wave music, 1.5 times as likely to belong to a health club and 1.3 times more likely to use a gas credit card. Not too many of them own gas chain saws, eat at ice cream restaurants or belong to religious clubs.

Harris, for the record, rents his apartment, has been married for 22 years, lifts weights and jogs. He votes Democratic--while most New Beginners nationwide voted for Ronald Reagan--and watches the Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey shows.

And talking cluster profiles here, Harris’ Hawthorne neighborhood is as eclectic as he is. Although 64.7% of ZIP 90250 is New Beginnings, another 12.7% comes up as Pools & Patios, with single digit percentages for Rank & File, New Melting Pot, Single City Blues, Smalltown Downtown, Heavy Industry, Hispanic Mix and Levittown, U.S.A.

Said Harris’ neighbor Lucilia Baron, in Spanish: “Everything I do is in Spanish, and our neighbors are Asians, who speak their own language, so we don’t talk to them.”

And walking on the next street over, 90250 resident Julia Aghazaden, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic married to an Iranian immigrant, had this reflection on her neighborhood, “What I like about it is you can go outside and nobody comes to pick on you.”

Taken by themselves, such opinions and observations might be mildly interesting to, say, a social anthropologist, but once they are fed into a computer they can become grist for everything from political campaign strategies to a multimillion dollar advertising blitz.

Cluster Analysis

Armed with a cluster analysis of a ZIP code (nationwide roughly 2,320 households each), or even more exact, a cluster analysis at the Census block level (roughly 340 households each), an advertiser can determine if there is a market for almost anything. Some companies, Claritas not among them, even profile individual homes.

“It is meaningful for advertisers to know as much about the customer as they can,” said Freedman Gosden Jr., chairman of Foote, Cone & Belding/Direct Marketing Worldwide. “That way they can only spend money to mail to the same profile (of people) as the ones who are already responding.”

Some of this, to be sure, is just common sense. Gosden recalls that several years ago, a fund-raising drive for a major Los Angeles museum met with great success by using a mailing list of Brooks Brothers customers to solicit donations.

Such targeting “always seems logical after the fact,” he said, “but it is almost never logical before the fact.”

Author Weiss gives this example: “There’s a company called Adam and Eve, which has an erotic novelty catalogue. They wanted to find out what neighborhood type was buying their products. Well, common sense would tell you that the people who would buy were Bohemian Mix, singles, funky urban neighborhoods.

“But lo and behold, they did a cluster analysis of who had bought their products in the past, and the highest percentage came from Money & Brains. . . . It turns out that the people who live in Money & Brains are not only buying Jaguars, sailboats and compact disc players, but they are also buying strawberry love oil.”

But while such tools as cluster analysis have been a boon to direct mail marketers--on the average increasing their return from the 1%-2% range to the 3%-5%--that still means that the other 95% of us aren’t jumping at the bait.

“What we have found is that we can make people jump and flinch, but we can’t make them buy things that they don’t want to buy,” said Ben Enis, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California.

‘No Magic Answer’

“There is no magic answer that is going to pop out,” he said. “The ZIP code thing is one part of the puzzle at best.”

So what is it that makes us tick?

Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, politicians and just about everybody else has their own answer to that one. And predictably enough, debate rages among marketers as well.

Edward J. Flesch, director of the Values and Lifestyles Program at SRI International, an independent research organization in Menlo Park, says that while demographics are valuable in market research, a better approach would be grounded in psychology. VALS-2, SRI International’s marketing system, puts consumers into one of eight psychological categories.

According to the VALS-2 system, an action-oriented person might be more likely to buy coffee if it were shown being sipped at the ski lodge, whereas others might respond better to an authority figure like Mrs. Olson or Marcus Welby telling them which brew is best.

“In an ideal world, you would use both geo-demographics and psycho-graphics,” Flesch said.

In fact, the Claritas system, while heavily weighted by Census data, also uses behavioral studies to help gauge the pulse of America. And although the 1990 Census is expected to register demographic changes in 20% of the nation’s neighborhoods--which Claritas says could mean eight new clusters and the demise of others--Robbin, the system’s founder, says that geo-demography remains a very stable system.

He notes that neighborhoods, by and large, maintain themselves through a political infrastructure and are slow to change.

Telltale Data

But when that does happen--say, when farmland is subdivided and young suburbanites begin arriving to stake swing sets in their back yards--telltale data start leaking out.

“Like the R. L. Polk data base of auto registration,” Robbin said. “We suddenly see all these expensive cars in the area. So now we see that the place has gone from farmland to Topanga Canyon.

“We look for (such) exceptions, and then we investigate,” he added, suddenly recalling an “oddball ZIP code” that recently caught his attention.

Turns out that Plainsboro, N.J., ZIP code 08536, is what Robbin calls the “richest, youngest and most single ZIP code in the country.”

“These people are really technocrats, young executives, who have banded together. This is the quintessential yuppie town. Almost half of its people are aged 25 to 34, which is almost double the national average, and it’s not small. There are some 10,000 people, 6,000 households, yet half of the people live in single person households and the median income is $40,000.”

Robbin, a Bethesda, Md., Blue Blood Estates resident, who, incidentally, is leaving Claritas to consult, “develop some products, take some risks and spend time doing some outlandish things,” describes himself as a social science data manipulator.

Give him a Census survey, laden with such nuggets as a person’s age, sex, race, income, marital status, etc., and he can construct an equation that will predict how that person will act.

“I have never come across anything that wasn’t predictable by one or more of these variables,” he said. “The idea (behind the Claritas system) is that the fundamental variables described by the Census really relate to behavior in a fundamental way.”

So could that really mean that Furs & Stationwagons are the raison d’etre of those who live within the boundaries of Northridge ZIP code 91311?

Well, sort of.

Here’s what Kathy Radaich, 39, mother of three and stepmother of another three, had to say: “My responsibility is to bring up the best kids that I can.”

Drives a Jaguar

And, in the meantime, she said from her elegantly furnished living room, she goes to the grocery store every day, reads scads of magazines, drives a Jaguar (she just sold her station wagon), exercises regularly, vacations in the Caribbean, votes Republican and watches television with the kids.

Fact is, she conceded, about the only glaring mismatch with her ZIP’s cluster profile is her failure to drive a car leased by her or her husband’s employer, or that she did not spend more than $25 at Best last month.

But in Inglewood’s Morningside Park, which Claritas describes as 76.68% Black Enterprise, 16.6% Emergent Minorities and 6.71% New Melting Pot, Dorothy Stallings seems to be in conflict with her cluster.

True, she said while standing next to her red Mercedes, she is on the way up. She is 41 years old, a flight attendant, a single parent, and a health club devotee. But, no, she says, she doesn’t drink Scotch, or malt liquor or eat at too many theme restaurants.

And just like that matron in Bel-Air, Stallings said the idea that she is classified by her ZIP code, in this case 90305, annoys and dismays her.

“I’m just fed up,” she said. “Just because I live here, I pay higher car insurance. . . . It’s like you are penalized for being successful.”

And what of those Southern Californians known for being young, upwardly mobile, urban professionals? Try Hermosa Beach, ZIP 90254, where 93.16% of the residents fall into the Young Influentials cluster, another 5.39% in Bohemian Mix and 1.45% in Money & Brains.

A Downhill Skier

Yes, said one Young Influential, in this case, Steve Mangiagli, the 37-year-old owner of Becker Surfboards, he is a downhill skier, owner of two European cars and a drinker of imported wines.

And, coincidentally, added another, actress Sharyn Ober, 25, she and boyfriend have just started “Body by Jake,” and even in their one-bedroom apartment, they have two phone lines.

“This place is very yuppish,” Ober said, “but with some Bohemian thrown in.”

Not a bad analysis, for someone who had never heard of a cluster.

TOP 10 ‘LIFE STYLE CLUSTERS’ IN L.A. COUNTY 1. NEW BEGINNINGS (13.52% of households): Includes many divorced Americans looking for new jobs and life styles. Predominant age is 18-34, pre-child, lower-level white-collar and clerical occupations. 2. YOUNG INFLUENTIALS (9.93%): Young, metropolitan sophisticates, with exceptional high-tech, white-collar employment levels. Predominately high-spending singles, childless couples, unrelated adults in expensive one and two-person homes, apartments and condos. 3. HISPANIC MIX (8.89%): Hispanic barrios featuring dense, row-house areas containing large families, many single-parent, with small children. Essentially bilingual neighborhoods. 4. POOLS & PATIOS (8.64%): Once like Furs & Stationwagons, being upscale greenbelt suburbs in late child-rearing mode. Today, children have grown, leaving aging couples in empty nests. Good educations, high white-collar employment, double incomes assure “the good life.” 5. BLUE CHIP BLUES (8.6%): Similar to Young Suburbia in most respects except social rank. High school educations, blue-collar occupations are reflected in fewer high-end incomes and lower home values. 6. NEW MELTING POT (7.26%): New immigrant populations--often with Hispanic, Asian and Middle-Eastern origins--mixing in traditional urban melting pot areas and new immigrant neighborhoods. 7. SINGLE CITY BLUES (5.36%): Densely urban, downscale singles areas, many located near city colleges. With few children, odd mixture of races, classes, transients and night trades, could be aptly described as the poor man’s Bohemia. 8. EMERGENT MINORITIES (4.62%): Almost 80% black, with above average concentrations of children, almost half in single-parent homes, below average education, white-collar employment. The struggle for emergence from poverty is evident here. 9. PUBLIC ASSISTANCE (4.54%): The nation’s poorest neighborhoods, with twice its unemployment level, and nine times its share of public assistance incomes. Large, single-parent families, 70% black, in rented or public high-rise buildings interspersed with aging tenement rows. 10. MONEY & BRAINS (4.04%): Dominated by childless couples and a mix of upscale singles, it’s the nation’s second highest socio-economic rank, typified by swank, shipshape townhouses, apartments and condos. Sophisticated consumers of adult luxuries--apparel, restaurants, travel. Source: Claritas Corp., Alexandria, Va. Figures compiled in 1988. Descriptions summarized from Claritas 1986/87 Diskette Database. 1988

TOP 10 LIFE-STYLE CLUSTERS IN ORANGE COUNTY 1. NEW BEGINNINGS (19.28% of county households): Includes many divorced Americans looking for new jobs and life styles. Predominant age is 18 to 34, pre-child, lower-level white-collar and clerical occupations. 2. YOUNG SUBURBIA (15.49%): Runs to large, young families and ranks second in married couples with children. Distinguished by relative affluence and high white-collar employment levels. 3. FURS & STATION WAGONS (14.02%): Third in socio-economic rank, living in expensive new neighborhoods in the greenbelt suburbs of nation’s major metropolitan areas. Well-educated, mobile professionals and managers with nation’s highest incidence of teen-age children. 4. YOUNG INFLUENTIALS (12.31%): Young, metropolitan sophisticates, with exceptional high-tech, white-collar employment levels. Predominately high-spending singles, childless couples, unrelated adults in expensive one- and two-person homes, apartments and condos. 5. BLUE-CHIP BLUES (8.97%): Similar to Young Suburbia in most respects except social rank. High school educations, blue-collar occupations are reflected in fewer high-end incomes and lower home values. 6. POOLS & PATIOS (8.74%): Once like Furs & Station Wagons, being upscale greenbelt suburbs in late child-rearing mode. Today, children have grown, leaving aging couples in empty nests. Good educations, high white-collar employment, double incomes assure “the good life.” 7. MONEY & BRAINS (8%): Dominated by childless couples and a mix of upscale singles, it’s the nation’s second-highest socio-economic rank, typified by swank, shipshape townhouses, apartments and condos. Sophisticated consumers of adult luxuries: apparel, restaurants, travel. 8. GRAY POWER (4.68%): The nation’s most affluent elderly, retired, and widowed neighborhoods, with highest concentration of childless married couples, living in mixed multiunits, condos and mobile homes on non-salaried incomes. 9. GOD’S COUNTRY (2.35%): The highest socio-economic, white-collar neighborhoods, primarily located outside major metropolitan areas. Well-educated frontier types, highly mobile. Among the nation’s fastest-growing neighborhoods. 10. SINGLE CITY BLUES (1.86%): Densely urban, downscale singles areas, many located near city colleges. With few children, odd mixture of races, classes, transients and night trades, could be aptly described as the poor man’s Bohemia. Source: Claritas Corp., Alexandria, Va. Figures compiled in 1988. Descriptions summarized from Claritas 1986/87 Diskette Database. 1988 TOP 10 ‘CLUSTERS’ IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY 1. NEW BEGINNINGS (20.96% of county households): Includes many divorced Americans looking for new jobs and lifestyles. Predominant age is 18-34, pre-child, lower-level white-collar and clerical occupations. 2. NEW HOMESTEADERS (13.41%): Much like God’s Country in mobility, housing and family characteristics, but nine rungs down the socio-economic scale. All measures of education and affluence significantly lower. Peak concentrations of military personnel. 3. BLUE-CHIP BLUES (11.14%): Similar to Young Suburbia in most respects except social rank. High school educations, blue-collar occupations are reflected in fewer high-end incomes and lower home values. 4. YOUNG INFLUENTIALS (7.17%): Young, metropolitan sophisticates, with exceptional high-tech, white-collar employment levels. Predominately high-spending singles, childless couples, unrelated adults in expensive one and two-person homes, apartments and condos. 5. SINGLE CITY BLUES (7.05%): Densely urban, downscale singles areas, many located near city colleges. With few children, odd mixture of races, classes, transients and night trades, could be aptly described as the poor man’s Bohemia. 6. GOD’S COUNTRY (5.9%): The highest socio-economic, white-collar neighborhoods primarily located outside major metros. Well-educated frontier types, highly mobile. Among the nation’s fastest growing neighborhoods. 7. POOLS & PATIOS (4.96%): Once like Furs & Stationwagons, being upscale greenbelt suburbs in late child-rearing mode. Today, children have grown, leaving aging couples in empty nests. Good educations, high white-collar employment, double incomes assure “the good life.” 8. YOUNG SUBURBIA (4.81%) Runs to large, young families, and ranks second (behind Blue Collar Nursey) in married couples with children. Distinguished by relative affluence and high white-collar employment levels. 9. HISPANIC MIX (3.56%): Hispanic barrios featuring dense, row-house areas containing large families, many single-parent, with small children. Essentially bilingual neighborhoods. 10. SMALLTOWN DOWNTOWN (3.15%): Remnants of factory towns that sprang up along downtown railroads, working class row house neighborhoods mixed with the aging, downtown portions of minor cities and towns. Source: Claritas Corp., Alexandria, Va. Figures compiled in 1988. Descriptions summarized from Claritas 1986/87 Diskette Database. 1988