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October 04, 2004

Goodbye Area Codes?

Fenster Moop writes

Dear Blowhards,

The New York Times has an interesting article on area codes. The cellular-driven ability to de-link areas codes and actual geographic areas is causing angst in some quarters. The shift that is taking place puts the individual, not the locale, at the center, meaning that dialing a 212 number may result in a cell phone ringing in Mannheim or Minneapolis rather than Manhattan. A director or "mobile communications studies" is concerned that people will be disoriented when denied this "compass point"; a minister has penned a sermon entitled "God's Area Code" dealing with the matter.

Of course, everyone wants "212", as though that code represents real estate in a hot neighborhood. But doesn't technological change eventually self-correct where this kind of scarcity is concerned? I mean, a separate three-digit area code made sense when allotting otherwise duplicative seven-digit numbers. In the long run, I'd think the three digit prefix ought to go the way of the dodo, to be replaced by strings of digits, arranged and configured in some other way. That'll solve the status problem. In the meantime, this tempest in a teapot provides an interesting American Studies case study.



posted by Fenster at October 4, 2004


Does anyone else miss the days of Butterfield 8, Trafalgar 7, etc?
While I was growing up my exchange was Oregon 5.
Would be nice to have the BMT, IRT, and IND back too.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 4, 2004 1:45 PM

WS, I' am not a native NYker, but I too would love to have old [romantic] numbers back.
See also.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 4, 2004 2:24 PM

Sorry, link didn't register. Here.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 4, 2004 2:26 PM

I grew up in MOnument-6 in the closing days of that kind of phone number. I remember friends in the ubiquitous UNiversity exchange (-4, -5, and -6 were most common in my school circles) and we had a bunch of RIverside-9's as well. Now I'm in Brooklyn and it doesn't look to me like 858 parses into much...

When I got my cell I rejected my first number because it was a 646 area code (I registered the number in Manhattan). It's not so much a nod to real estate as the reality that it's a business phone for the most part - like 99% of the part - and since it's for music industry stuff and we were starting to work with an L.A. band, I wanted the 917 code, which is recognized easily out in California. 646 is much less understood.

Which was a shame, because the rest of the number was terrific, easy to remember and trippingly on the tongue and all. The new number was the kind only an owner could love.

Oh, and things didn't work out with the L.A. band. It's always something.

Posted by: Linus on October 4, 2004 3:01 PM

There's no doubt romance in the old Butterfields and Trafalgars, now gone away. But words do seem to making a comeback of sorts, as in: "call 1-800-Gutters for all your gutter needs!" Not terribly romantic, I'll grant you, but at least it's a tad more personal than 10 digits. The word-reference relates to the individual or corporate entity, rather than to an area--all part of the relentless individuation process, as we get converted, for good or ill, to our naked (consumer or expressive, depending on your point of view) selves.

In that regard, why are we limited to numbers, when there are only 10 possble digits? Letters open up another 26 and modern cell keyboards allow alpha entry. Why can't my phone number simply be fenstermoop?

Posted by: fenster on October 4, 2004 6:21 PM

As a non-new yorker, I'm astounded; people really care that much about their area code?

I mean, I know I'm a 757, but I don't have any 757 tattoos, nor do I judge other people based on their number.

A curious introduction to something I'd never considered.

Posted by: Jimmy on October 4, 2004 6:45 PM

Hey, I'm an 818 guy, as in Pulp Fiction's "I don't know anybody in 818." Typical cheap shots from a guy who used to work in a video store in Torrance.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 4, 2004 7:03 PM

Sliding slightly off-topic, but maybe still in the ballpark ...

How does everyone feel about the little change in the visual presentation of phone numbers that we've seen in the last five or so years. Stylish people no longer use hyphens, they use periods, ie., no longer 212-555-1212, but instead 212.555.1212. Which is Euro-style, no? I'm annoyed by it a bit myself. I rather like some of the cornball hick American things -- feet instead of meters, farenheit instead of celsius, hyphens instead of periods. The first people I noticed cdoing this were design people, which probably says something. ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 4, 2004 9:30 PM

Off-topic, but I find it vastly interesting that the telephone number of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York is still “PEnnsylvania 6-5000” (or 212.736.0500, in art director-ese).

Glenn Miller would be amused, I think.

Posted by: Maureen on October 4, 2004 10:17 PM

Whoops. I meant to write 212.736.5000

Posted by: Maureen on October 4, 2004 10:19 PM

Michael, as a kid, I was taught to put the area code in parentheses, e.g. (718) 555-xxxx. I still do that. I think it's a vestige of the days when people made many fewer calls outside their area codes (for the simple reason that there were many fewer area codes). The parentheses reminded you that the area code was a seldom-needed piece of information.


Many New Yorkers care intensely about stupid things like that. That said, the 718 area code is not nearly as dreaded as it was ten years ago. It's been gentrified.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 4, 2004 11:36 PM

Hmm, perhaps I was not clear about the area code. It's not a status symbol; it's a tool for doing business.

Most L.A. folks in the music business are fairly unlikely to answer a call from someone they don't know. When you make it a call from someone they don't know out of an area code they don't know: as we say here, fuhgeddaboudit. 917 says "Manhattan" to just about everyone.

I use my cell at music conferences to touch base with people I've met and schedule meetings, now and then. There too 917 is something most people understand, and 646 is not. My home code is 718, which is perfectly fine, but not really ideal for business use.

Friedrich, L.A.'s Cindy Alexander has a terrific ballad called 818 on her last record. It's about a phone-sex operator.

Posted by: Linus on October 5, 2004 12:41 AM

the dots vs dashes thing is simple. it looks better small. You can put your phone number on a business card without it getting smudgy and unreadable. Since phone numbers are typically below e-mail adresses, it is important to make them blend in with the dots above.

Also, alot of hyphens in type sets met numbers at an unaesthetical level(much too high typically). Dots are much simpler.

Posted by: JL on October 5, 2004 12:45 AM

Also, my cell phone number (the only phone I use nowadays) is a 732, central NJ (where the phone was sold, so many years ago). Since I live in Manhattan now it causes endless confusion with delivery people when they ask for my number.......

Posted by: JL on October 5, 2004 12:47 AM

What, ALL design people use dots? I was so sure that was my invention! Should've patented it.
Proves that quality-to-quantity rule...

I started to use it many years ago, back in Russia and always got raised brows (and at least one person, my first boss, told me that's another indication of my general lazyness)

Quick invwestigation: I checked last page credits in a book in my bag, published in 2000 in Moscow - same parenthesis story as with traditional way F.Morrone describes. So, alas, Michael, no corroding European influence there.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 5, 2004 8:50 AM

The dash may not be hot,
The dot may have panache;
But doth not the dot lack the flash
With which the dash fills its slot?

Hmmmmm? :^)

Posted by: ricpic on October 5, 2004 11:20 AM

also, postal zip codes are going to be detached from will be able to live in idaho and have a Beverly Hills 90120 zip code.

Posted by: tony on October 5, 2004 3:14 PM

Dots may be "simpler" from a design standpoint, but from any measure by which you judge how well people get information, they are bad. Really bad. Worse even than following Fowlers half-crocked "rules" for the language. Find somebody who designs graphic displays for targeting systems and ask them how the average human handles visual information and get back to me.

Area codes - and all numbers - should relate to something. The first time I ran across someone whose mobile number was associated with a city area code rather than that person's location in their city, I just made a mental note to add a couple of months to my worklife.

The problems of the Dave Nelsons of this country would be significantly reduced if area codes contained information.

The numbers identify sets. Which is why zillions of nerds lobbied in vain to have special mobile and fax area codes.

What's next? Changing the names of school grades to random symbolic characters like hash mark and virgule?

VOIP is a different, and unreleated, matter.

You can have a zip code anywhere you want. All you need is either a drop box or a friend. Drop boxes are easily identified. Friends, not so much.

Posted by: j.c. on October 5, 2004 8:58 PM

My 7-digit cell phone number starts with "219". I always have to explain to people that that's NOT the area code. So frustrating.

Posted by: ben on October 6, 2004 9:42 AM

Actually, I think we dot-com busters pioneered the 415.111.2222 style of phone number in the Silicon Valley back in 1998. The idea was that it looked like an IP address, which is how computers are identified on the net. For example, the IP address for is "" . It was a time when putting forth an ostentatiously digital image was important; most companies picked up on the dot style phone number immediately.
I don't think Europeans use dot-style phone numbers. They mostly use spaces or hyphens, from what I've seen.

Posted by: Ethan Herdrick on October 6, 2004 10:27 PM

The joke, however, is that the "importance" of the "212" area code was lost 20 years ago, and this debate is still occurring.

Maybe y'all are too young to remember the "old" system of rotary phones and area codes, so a primer for the Gen Yers:

Area Codes used to all be three digits, with the middle digit being a "0" or a "1" and the first and third digit being any number OTHER THAN a "0" or a "1". Thus, 212, 202, or 917, but never 545, 211, or 410. The rotary phone, meanwhile, while set up so that you had to wait for the dial to "dial back" before you could dial the next number. A "1" rolled back the quickest, while you had to wait longest for the "0".

Under the "area code rules", therefore, the digits 2-1-2 were -- empirically -- the best area code because they were the FASTEST area code to dial. Bip bip bip, and you could get straight to the number. In a city that prided speed, there was a reason to value "2-1-2" as the ultimate timesaver, even if it was only two seconds, tops, being saved. (I even recall a discussion about whether the emergency number "9-1-1" should be changed to "2-1-1" to keep people from dying while waiting for the "9" to roll back!)

With push-buttons, of course, there are no "faster" or "slower" numbers to dial. The cache of 2-1-2 is therefore lost in the sands of history. And yet people still care!

Posted by: Richard Bellamy on October 8, 2004 11:15 AM

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