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Mistaken Identity : Old-Timers Blame the Post Office for Confusion About Winnetka

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s Winnetka, stupid. And if you’re mailing a letter to Ruth Richter, either you get it right or you get it back.

“I get mail addressed ‘Canoga Park’ and I write, ‘Unknown at this address, return to sender,’ ” she says. “I’ve done that for 40 years.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 01, 1994 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 1, 1994 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Column 6 Zones Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Winnetka map-A map of Winnetka in Friday’s Valley Edition incorrectly included a part of Woodland Hills in its borders. The correct map appears above.
GRAPHIC-MAP: Winnetka, Los Angeles Times

Which is just about the same amount of time she’s been trying to explain to folks--both around the San Fernando Valley and over the back fence--that Winnetka is not just a long straight street.

It’s not a drive-in theater, either--the Winnetka 6 is in Chatsworth. It’s not a section of Reseda or Northridge or Woodland Hills.

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“It’s Canoga Park, is what it really is,” explained a directory assistance operator helpfully.

Lies. All lies, Richter says.

Covering just 18 city blocks and surrounded--squashed, some would say--by five other West Valley communities, Winnetka is one of the smallest townships in Los Angeles. And despite its lively beginnings as a Utopian chicken farm, it is one of the most forgotten--by the history books, by census takers and even by some who live there.

Jim Domine, now president of the Winnetka Chamber of Commerce, grew up smack in the middle of the community. But he was thirtysomething before he learned just which community that was.

“One day one of my customers told me this was Winnetka and not Canoga Park,” the business owner says. “All those years I thought it was Canoga Park.”

Residents say the reasons for the community’s relative anonymity and often mistaken identity are many: its simple, agrarian roots (they are not given to bragging), the lack of newsworthy events (Northridge has its earthquake, Reseda was home to “The Karate Kid”), and its diminutive size.

But the old-timers all point in the same direction when explaining the primary cause of confusion.

“The post office done it,” blurts Winnetka Honorary Mayor Art Hieber.

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As Hieber, who says he’s “five years older than dirt,” and others tell it, the lines and loyalties began to grow fuzzy during the Eisenhower era, when the increasingly modern Canoga Park post office offered the first “mounted delivery” in the area.

Door-to-door service, they promised the Winnetkans. No more daily trips to the local post office. But on one Faustian condition: Keep your 91306 ZIP code. And keep your street address, just tell people to address your mail “Canoga Park.”

Those who insisted on living in “Winnetka,” however, would still have to pick up their mail in person.

Residents jumped ship in droves. Who lives where--and what is what--has been in question ever since.

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But the community--bordered by Nordhoff Street on the north, Victory Boulevard on the south, Corbin Avenue on the east and De Soto Avenue on the west--was an anomaly from the start.

The brainchild of a philosopher-cum-chicken farmer who had also helped develop Winnetka, Ill., the town was first deemed “Weeks’ Colony,” in honor of its founder, Charles Weeks.

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A back-to-the-land proponent in the style of Henry David Thoreau, Weeks began developing the community in 1920. He envisioned a settlement of educated, artistic naturalists in a town to be part commune, part farm, part business venture.

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Each one-acre lot would have 2,500 laying hens, a house set back 100 feet from the road, a straight line of well-groomed fruit trees and a clover lawn to draw bees for pollination.

“Here in these sequestered garden homes man may attain that serenity conducive to the gentlest arts and thus be able to reveal new worlds of joy and emotion,” Weeks wrote in his typical style, melding flowery prose and huckster-like salesmanship.

By 1924, nearly 500 families had signed on, and the town blossomed. They established schools, a community center and the Weeks Colony Orchestra, in-between gathering the eggs.

In his desire to see the community flourish, however, Weeks himself helped underwrite many of the colonists’ loans. And when the Great Depression hit, the bill collectors came calling.

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Weeks left the state in 1934, and as his colony lost focus, members gave up the name Weeks. The area became known as Winnetka, and fairly well-known at that.

Then the big-time Canoga Park post office showed up with its newfangled delivery trucks, spreading a confusion that would only grow murkier as families came and went and forgot just where exactly was Winnetka.

“You have people talking about Canoga Park ending on one street, and others talking about Winnetka starting on another,” said Juan Rodriguez, field deputy from City Councilwoman Laura Chick’s office, which oversees much of the area.

In all fairness, it should be made clear that current Canoga Park Postmaster Mike Madrigal had no hand in any alleged postal name trading. He’d never even heard such a story and says that, as far as he’s concerned, it’s quite irrelevant. He’ll get your mail to you regardless, as long as the ZIP code is correct.

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Winnetka, Canoga, “It doesn’t matter to us,” Madrigal says.

When many Valley neighborhoods began breaking away from their communities in the 1980s--to distance themselves from community names that they believed connoted high crime or low rent--Winnetkans began once again to assert their identity. After all, part of Canoga Park was re-christened West Hills, and Sepulveda ceased to exist altogether. The Winnetkans, meanwhile, already had their own name and figured it was time people knew it.

At their urging, the city hung shiny blue Welcome-to-Winnetka signs along the “border.”

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The Chamber of Commerce in mailings prompts businesses to “Add a touch of class, use the name in your address.”

And Honorary Mayor Hieber--who still raises chickens and hands out business cards that read “Winnetka--the (heart) of the Valley"--published 12,500 booklets a couple years back detailing Winnetka’s eclectic beginnings and proper boundaries. He delivered them door-to-door, postal-style, to every house in town.

“It took me a whole year,” Hieber says. “Wore out four pairs of shoes.”

His devotion is understandable, especially when you consider the etymology of the word itself. Winnetka comes from the Potawatomi Indian language. It means beautiful place.

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Winnetka facts: Population: 35,000 to 40,000. Zip Code: 91306 covers all of Winnetka and parts of Canoga Park. Size: 18 city blocks. Founder: Charles Weeks, a chicken farmer who also developed communities in Winnetka, Ill. and Palo Alto.


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