The 212 area code is under attack! Those three little numbers may not be the perfect piece of affordable Manhattan ownership you thought they were. As Todd Shields & Scott Moritz reported in Bloomberg News yesterday, Vonage is threatening to muck up the purity of the 212 by asking the FCC to give them unused numbers from a national pool that regional players usually distribute, thereby severing "the link between geography and area codes." And if this works, the FCC may let more companies follow suit. Oh, horror! This means, as the New York Post posits today, "The next time you get a call from area code 212, it might be from Manhattan —Kansas." How utterly dreadful. The 212 might be absolutely nothing, or, well, not what you thought it meant.
Consider, first, a bit of history with your dose of area code outrage. The iconic episode of Seinfeld, in which Elaine Benes angles for a dead neighbor's 212 number, is 15 years old. (At that time, 646 area codes was a virtual unknown. Today, the newer area codes in New York City are 347 and 929.) Since then Carrie Bradshaw's Sex and the City-based 917 has grown old, with the last episode of that series running in 2004. If there is an area code of note in the next-generation HBO series Girls, it's likely a 646 or a 347, or maybe a 718, but certainly not a 212. After all, it's Brooklyn.
Of course, area codes (the new, new "exchanges" of years past) have been changing for some time now. With phone number portability, geography and area codes no longer go together. While moving once meant new area codes, people now take their area codes with them like little memories of where they've been. There are people who've lived in New York for years who have 202 area codes, people in L.A. with 917s. The Wire's Rebecca Greenfield has a 716 number (Buffalo, where she lived in high school), even though she lives in New York now and used to live in D.C. It doesn't indicate her geography, but it means something to her. As she says, "I would be sad if I had to change my number for some reason."
On the other side of that coin are the stories I've heard for years about folks buying up all the 212s or 917s they could find, because they think those numbers are something special. There is a glut of people selling 212 SIM cards on eBay. We still somehow think the area code is important just as the area code grows less and less connected to a geographical current reality. Why, really, should any of us care about area codes at all? It is rare for people to have landlines, and so, most of us don't have 212 numbers. Even my office phone is a 646. It matters little to me, but when I suggested declaring the status area code dead, my Wire coworkers were incensed. "It's not," said one. "917 forever." "Carrie Bradshaw is forever," said another.
Well, it's easy to defend our favorite area codes, because we have nothing to lose but those digits themselves. While deep in many of our hearts lie our area codes, and the stories we associate with them, that nostalgic feeling must be tempered some by the reality that they don't always indicate much about our present. Whomever you're reaching out to by phone can't actually trust your area code to reveal much about you, other than that that's your area code. You may or may not live in that place; you may have lived there once; you may have simply purchased your phone there, on a whim.
Further distancing us from the status of the code is that often we don't even know each others' area codes, just the way we don't really know even our closest friends' phone numbers either, because those numbers have been saved handily by our phones and we don't have to have them committed to memory. Once you program someone into your phone, you rarely give that phone number a second look. The only way an area code makes an impression on you, really, is if it's the first time that person is calling you, and you don't recognize the number at all, and then, to top it off, it begins with an 813 (Tampa!) or a 234 (Akron!). Who in the world, and why?
Maybe it's not a full-blown status code, but simply a first-impression code. You want to seem like you're from New York? You should probably dress like a New Yorker, and that includes your phone. A certain area code might mean that you've been a local longer than others, and that means something to people, too, especially in a city where transplants may be regarded with skepticism. As NYU Local editor Myles Tanzer (718) told me, "Apologies for being a total millennial, but I can't picture a situation where area code discussion would come up. I don't know anyone who has a home phone line. I do love having a 718 cell phone number, though, because it gives proof that I grew up in New York."
That's not just true for New Yorkers. "When I was growing up, they split Chicago into 312 (the existing code) and 773 (the new one)," Village Voice Web editor Nick Greene (312) explained. "I remember when some of my best friends were forced to take 773. I told them that nothing changed, but something had. Dialing those extra three numbers to talk created a rift between us—one that I'm not entirely sure was ever repaired."
I asked Grantland's Rembert Browne (404) if he'd ever judged anyone for their area code. "Yes," he said. "Never negatively, though. Only positively." When I asked for more explanation, he clarified, "When I'm exchanging numbers, I hear some area codes and immediately want to know more about them. Or am like, 'respect.' But I'm never like, "917—fuck you."
So, yes, area codes mean something. But they'll mean less and less over time, I predict, and they don't mean what they used to mean, which was that you were from and lived in the place where you got that number. Now, they might simply be a relic of the past you're hanging onto, a fond reminder of those special years in which you lived in L.A., or Seattle, or Vermont. Maybe you don't want to let go of that time, but you know it's no more you than is the 212—or 646—number on your landline at work. It's a part of you, but it's not everything. It's about your past, not your future (and in the present, who really wants to go to the trouble of changing an area code?).
Really, what's the worst thing in the world that happens if a precious 212 number ends up out of state? It may already be there, anyway. Besides, isn't Brooklyn officially cooler than Manhattan now? Hang onto your 718.
Inset via Philip Bump. Top image via Etsy.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.