Eight years ago, Gail Curley decided to move to West Roxbury. She looked at newspaper ads listed under "West Roxbury." When she saw a promising place, she called a West Roxbury realtor. She drove to West Roxbury and fell in love.
But then, as she got ready to sign the legal documents for her new house, the name of a different neighborhood suddenly appeared: Roslindale. It turned out that even though the house lay within the generally recognized boundaries of West Roxbury, a quirk of the US Postal Service bestowed a Roslindale ZIP code upon her new neighborhood.
"I was taken aback," Curley said. "I said, 'I thought this was West Roxbury.' Everything about it said West Roxbury."
When she heard the explanation, she bought the house anyway. But the power of the ZIP code brought unexpected complications. Curley's car insurance was calculated as if she lived in Roslindale, a zone with higher rates. Not until two years later did she learn from a neighbor that she could qualify for West Roxbury rates by showing her insurer her property deed. Once she did, her rates dropped $400 a year.
The confusion in West Roxbury, 02132, began decades ago - no one can remember exactly what year - when a whole, triangular neighborhood was suddenly moved into Roslindale, 02131, without a single person leaving home. About 550 houses - roughly 680 households - and a dozen businesses now lie in the confusing swath of land not far from the center of West Roxbury. The mismatch between their deeds and their ZIP code has long rankled many residents.
But now the Postal Service says that next July the area, bordered by West Roxbury Parkway, Centre Street, and the VFW Parkway, will rejoin the West Roxbury ZIP code. The switch was made possible, the Postal Service says, by the opening of a new West Roxbury post office a few years ago.
West Roxbury's representative to the Boston City Council has been hearing complaints about 02131 since he first campaigned for office in 1995. "People would ask me all the time, 'When can we get our ZIP code back?' " said Councilor John M. Tobin Jr.
When mail is sent to West Roxbury, it sometimes takes a few days to get routed to the right address. Some deeds started referring to "the neighborhood formerly known as West Roxbury." Homeowners began to worry that their houses would be worth less if their address was considered Roslindale. And many people, like Curley, paid more for auto insurance.
"There's no question it affected insurance rates," Tobin said. "People would go to battle with their insurance companies two or three times a year."
But for all the grumblings of residents about these practicalities, what was hardest for some West Roxbury residents to swallow was their neighborhood identity. "All of the people here do everything in West Roxbury," Curley said. "We shop in West Roxbury. I go to the library at the West Roxbury branch. I belong to the West Roxbury Garden Club. We are and always have been West Roxbury."
And, some argue, it came down to snobbery. Although Roslindale has been growing more desirable in the last few years, as burgeoning housing prices pushed buyers farther away from downtown Boston, West Roxbury still has higher property values.
"We've got some highfalutin' people out here who think West Roxbury is something special," said Edward McDevitt, who moved to the disputed neighborhood from Dorchester 36 years ago.
At first, he too was distressed by the Roslindale ZIP code. But he has watched with disappointment as Centre Street in West Roxbury has lost stores, like Decelle, to banks and restaurants. And he worries about complications from a new ZIP code, about all the businesses and people he'll need to inform.
Housing prices are still lower in Roslindale, although they've been gaining ground on West Roxbury. Between 2000 and 2005, the median price of housing in Roslindale shot up nearly 100 percent, from $180,000 to $348,500. In West Roxbury, prices jumped 66 percent, not quite as dramatically, to $390,000. Roslindale Square, once a fine-dining wasteland, now boasts a host of well-regarded restaurants, from Italian and Spanish cuisine to sushi.
But although both neighborhoods have similar amounts of open space, Roslindale is more densely populated, with nearly twice as many people per square mile than West Roxbury. Roslindale is surrounded on all sides by Boston neighborhoods, but West Roxbury juts out as the city's southwest tip, bordered by Dedham, Needham, Newton, and Brookline.
Fifty-two percent of houses in Roslindale are single-family homes, far fewer than West Roxbury's 83 percent. And in Roslindale, poverty rates are higher and median household income is lower.
"Roslindale, to me, is more urban," Curley said. "But West Roxbury, like it or not, is more suburban."
West Roxbury is also less ethnically diverse: Nearly four in five residents speak English at home. In Roslindale, fewer than two-thirds speak English at home. Seventeen percent speak Spanish.
At a meeting earlier this fall about the new code change, most who spoke applauded the return to West Roxbury territory. The change shouldn't affect property values or taxes. Tobin is talking with the Suffolk Registry of Deeds to clear up any confusion about the neighborhood name.
Nora Greally moved to West Roxbury last year after 20 years in Roslindale.
"I'm glad," she said, "that my deed and my address will match."
And Curley feels like she's going home, although she doesn't want to disparage Roslindale.
"I think Roslindale is wonderful," she said. "It's just that it's not where I thought I was going."
Kathleen Burge can be reached at email@example.com