From where are you? We can debate the essence of this question. Does it seek a birthplace? A hometown? A state or country? For the purpose of understanding geography, let us understand this question to be asking, chiefly, “How do you define the place in which you reside?” The answer could be broad, such as “Earth,” “America,” or “Ohio.” One could answer more specifically that he or she resides at “Illinois Department of Revenue Parcel ID: 1418279004” or “39° 51ʹ 27.3ʺ N 104° 40ʹ 38.2ʺ W.” People might elect to answer with their county, as is common with people from Aroostook County, Maine, or their region, as people from the Lowcountry of South Carolina often do. Although “Brooklyn” is surely on Long Island, a Brooklyn resident would never say he or she lived on Long Island.
When should we describe places with geographic markers like valleys or islands, and when should we use government boundaries like counties or districts? Americans should ask themselves these questions in order to understand their place in the physical world. After the United States Postal Service (hereafter “USPS”) introduced ZIP codes in 1963 with a massive marketing campaign, Americans largely stopped thinking about geography—our postal addresses were enough. The USPS corroded how Americans consider their places of residence.
Between 1943 and 1962, Americans doubled the amount of mail they sent: 33 billion pieces of mail grew to 66.5 billion. The amount of mail increased so dramatically because corporations began to send mass mailings of advertisements. By expanding and complicating the physical spaces where people lived, the advent of suburbs also strained the USPS’s ability to deliver mail. In 1963, Postmaster General James Edward Day responded to the overwhelming demand for mail by creating the Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP), so called because it replaced the old Postal Delivery Zone System.
The USPS intended for ZIP codes—five digits that point mail to a specific post office—to be used internally. The ZIP code’s only function was to route mail from one post office to another; it had nothing to do with geography. Unfortunately for the USPS and the American citizenry, the sender must write the ZIP code on the envelope, thus necessitating the need for Americans to use ZIP codes—even if they did not truly understand what they were writing.
In the 1960s, Americans had to remember more numbers than ever before, such as telephone area codes and Social Security numbers. They resisted having to use ZIP codes, which caused a headache for the USPS. To win over the American public, the USPS launched a massive advertisement campaign for ZIP codes centered around Mr. Zip, “a friendly looking cartoon character who gave personality to the ZIP Code campaign.” The USPS promoted Mr. Zip on T.V., on radio, and in print so that Americans would believe that ZIP code use would lead to faster, more efficient mail delivery for the entire country. The unintended side effect of this campaign was the melding of ZIP code and place in the minds of Americans.
ZIP codes can distort how communities understand themselves through naming. To illustrate how ZIP codes can exacerbate the struggle communities face in naming, let us consider my hometown, Edgemont, New York, a community of approximately seven thousand people about twenty miles north of Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Edgemont derives its name from the public school district—the Edgemont Union Free School District—that defines its borders. Those borders are identical to the area protected by the Greenville Fire District, which shares a name with the census-designated place Greenville (same area as Edgemont) and one of the two local elementary schools. As far as local, state, and federal governments are concerned, Edgemont is merely an unincorporated section of the Town of Greenburgh.
The majority of Edgemont residents, though, list their address in the “Scarsdale, NY 10583” ZIP code. This confusion has caused Bowdoin to believe that (according to the PicBook) the three Edgemont High School graduates currently attending Bowdoin are from Scarsdale, New York. Edgemont residents themselves are unsure about the name of their hometown; some of them claim to be from Scarsdale either out of ease (Scarsdale is better known) or a desire to affect prestige, but many are simply ignorant of the difference. In 2015, Edgemont High School even printed “Given at Scarsdale, NY” on the diplomas of its graduating seniors.
Edgemont and Scarsdale are similar in some ways: Both have a median income higher than that of the country, rigorous public schools, and easy access to the Metro-North Railroad. Edgemont and Scarsdale may seem identical to the casual observer. But Edgemont has a third as many people, a more varied housing stock that renders it affordable to a wider range of incomes, broader ethnic diversity, and a more intimate culture. I care about those differences, I care about Scarsdale and Edgemont’s differing reputations, and I care that people know my true hometown—even if it isn’t a town.
Humans name each other intentionally. My name is Samuel J. Lewis—an arbitrary grouping of letters to many of you readers. That name is a familial tribute to others. People will often alter their names when undergoing significant change in their lives. Our names mean something.
The names of places are also important. Places in the United States often evoke Native Americans, the Dutch, the English, the German, the French, and the Spanish in their naming, often to promote culture and history. “Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School” tells you more about what Brunswick residents value than does “P.S. 3.”
ZIP codes are not always so detrimental to community identity; they can often cement a community’s name. Neighborhoods in large cities—areas without municipal distinction—often benefit from the legitimacy of a ZIP code. People who live in Queens, a borough of two million people, are from New York City by municipal definition. Queens is so large that naming it as your hometown does not tell much. Neighborhoods in Queens have names, though, and the USPS validates those places with ZIP code names. Astoria, Corona, Flushing, and Jamaica are amorphous blobs of place without the USPS’s help. The ZIP code is not useful for defining the borders, since locals will always disagree on the exact lines, but the name grants official recognition to an otherwise informal place. Saying you live in one of those places—areas with no municipality—is much more meaningful than saying you live in Queens or New York City.
The irony of Edgemont’s situation is that its ZIP code-inflicted struggle for identity would actually be fixed with a new ZIP code. Instituting a new ZIP code would not only clarify that Edgemont is not Scarsdale but also reaffirm Edgemont’s identity despite its status as an unincorporated section of the much larger Town of Greenburgh. The more pragmatic solution is for the USPS to adopt Edgemont as an “acceptable place name” under the Scarsdale ZIP code.
The geographical quandary I have presented here is not unique to Edgemont and Scarsdale. Numerous places in the United States suffer an identity crisis because of confusion created by ZIP codes. Because the USPS does not adhere to the borders of municipal entities when it designs mailing zones, all sorts of wacky situations have developed across the country: a village hall with the address of a different village (Kensington, New York), a city with a mailing facility in a different state (Hooker, Oklahoma), and a city divided into non-existent mini-cities (Centennial, Colorado).
We must understand that the basic function of the USPS and ZIP codes is to route mail—not to enhance our understanding of geography.