"There really isn't a town called Winnetka," the voice of directory assistance insisted. "It's just a street in Canoga Park."
If at first you don't succeed, try 411 again. Operator No. 2 was aware of Winnetka's existence, but found no trace of a business association.
"Tell you what," he said. "I can give you the Canoga Park Chamber of Commerce. That's right next to Winnetka."
Eventually, I was able to confirm that Winnetka and its chamber really do exist. Ruth Richter, the 70-year-old proprietor of West Valley Cycle, has lived in little Winnetka for 43 years and is past president of the Winnetka Chamber of Commerce.
"We're the 91306 ZIP code!" Richter boasted. "We have our own ZIP code, two councilmen, two police divisions and, until redistricting, four state senators!"
Why anybody would brag about a plethora of politicians is beyond me.
But having a ZIP code to call your own--that's another matter. True, nobody will soon be tuning into "Winnetka 91306." But over in the East Valley, there's a little community that would love to have its ZIP code back. Yes, it was a sad day in Arleta when the U.S. Postal Service took good ol' 91332 away. Arletans have been pining away ever since.
But at least Arleta has a new landmark. If you drive north on Woodman Avenue to Branford Street, you'll see it--a brand-new "Welcome to Arleta" sign. The Arleta Chamber of Commerce raised $6,000 in donations to put up the marker, built for permanence with brick, concrete block and mortar.
In an odd way, it was Arleta's sign that made me inquire about Winnetka. Arleta's humble marker is testament to the resilience of dozens of anonymous little communities that dot the sprawl of the county and city of Los Angeles, but are often ignored by map makers and unknown to 411 directory assistance. Some, like Winnetka, are old communities that in time are overshadowed by neighboring towns. Some, like Arleta, broke away from larger communities. The closet thing to a government is a chamber of commerce or a neighborhood association. Boundaries of these townlets are often vague or in dispute, which is one reason it's nice to have a single ZIP code.
Anonymity isn't necessarily a bad thing. Winnetka might be as famous as Sylmar, if only it had hosted a killer earthquake. If you don't know what news event put Lake View Terrace on the media's map, you haven't been paying attention to recent history.
Winnetka dates to the 1920s, when a man names Charles Weeks came to the Valley and founded Weeks Colony, a collection of one-acre family poultry farm plots. In the 1930s the name Winnetka was adopted. The town is bounded by Nordhoff on the north, De Soto on the west, Victory on the south, and Corbin on the east. (Alas, the landmark Winnetka 6 Drive-In is in Chatsworth.)
As for Arleta, most Angelenos may only be familiar with the community as an exit sign on a freeway.
"The running joke is we say, 'I love Arleta!' And people want to know who is this woman?" says Jose Bonilla, president of the Arleta Chamber of Commerce.
To Bonilla's dismay, many people assume Arleta, centered just west of the Golden State Freeway, is really just Pacoima's westside. Bonilla gives its boundaries as Paxton on the north, Woodman on the west and Tonopah on the south. Then it gets tricky. Heading south from Paxton, the eastern boundary is Sharp to Osborne, where it jogs to Laurel Canyon and continues on to Tonopah.
Once upon a time, Arleta was indeed part of Pacoima, but residents sought their own identity decades ago. In any case, many Pacoima community leaders have never acknowledged Arleta's claims of independence.
"I try to tell them this is not 1893, it's 1993," Bonilla says. "It's funny, but also tragic, because it's kept the communities from being good neighbors. There's a problem of really working together because of this disagreement."
The "Welcome to Arleta" sign might sound like $6,000 spent on a new target for graffiti vandals. Some local taggers hit the sign once already, Bonilla says, but the marks have since been sandblasted away. Bonilla expresses optimism that youths now understand that the sign merits respect.
His point is that the $6,000 isn't just money spent on a sign. It was an investment in community pride. Greeting visitors is one purpose. But the more important message is to give Arletans a sense that their little piece of L.A. is special.
A few years back, Bonilla promoted a slogan for Arleta: "Take Pride in Your Community." And for a community to have self-esteem, it has to have a sense of self.
He likes to talk about how Arletans successfully rallied a few years ago to block a Department of Water and Power move to knock down two houses and put an electrical distributing station next to Branford Park.
"What we're trying to do now," Bonilla says, "is get our ZIP code back."
Across the Valley in Winnetka, Richter has no ZIP code worries.
I asked her if Winnetka had a slogan, hoping for something colorful. Bellflower's old slogan was "Twenty-nine Churches, No Jails." My hope was that old Winnetka might have had something like "Winnetka--Is it the Chicken or the Egg?"
Richter is such a Winnetka booster that she throws out mail that suggests she lives in Canoga Park. But when I asked her whether Winnetka has a motto, she couldn't think of one, past or present.
Little wonder. Later, I fell upon this Winnetka slogan: "A Great Place to Live and Work." Now there's something that could use a little ZIP.