Remember When The Bronx Was 212?

The following is syndicated by Dr Peter Feinman of Institute of Archaeology, and Education who recently sent this to us in his newsletter and we thought you’d appreciate it as it took me back in time to when The Bronx was also 212 area code and we were the last borough to be cut off and dumped into the 718 outer borough club.

The Area Code Universe and Your Sense of Place: Are You a 212, 718,or 646 Person?

We are a species of belonging, of being part of place, of having a sense of identity based on that place. The place most closely associated with that sense of belonging is home. Be it ever so humble there is no place like it. Click your heels three times and you are there. Can it be that easy?

Many factors contribute to developing this sense of place One of them as it turns out is one’s area code…or at least it used to be. I was reminded of this fact when according to a press release in July, the New York State Public Service Commission approved the addition of a new area code. It would overlay the 315 area code region which includes all or parts of Fulton, Hamilton, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence and 12 other New York counties. The new area code would apply to new telephone numbers and no existing numbers would change.

This was not the first change which had occurred in the region. Like the ancient Tryon County, the region has needed to be divided into ever smaller units to accommodate not so much the increase in population, but the increased use of phone numbers due to the technological changes which have occurred. Of course, the original 315-people will always know who they are and the other area-code-people are newcomers.

This issue of area code identity first arose back in 1984 in New York City. Once upon a time 212 encompassed the entire city of all five boroughs. Then one’s sense of belonging to the city was shattered with the introduction of a new code, 718, for Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. As reported in the New York Times (February 15, 1984), following the public announcement, all hell broke loose.

City “officials argued the change would divide the city, hurt the development of business, cause confusion and stigmatize Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.”

“Our one city should not have two area codes,” Borough President Donald R. Manes of Queens said.

”The hardship and inconvenience for Brooklyn business people and residents could and should have been avoided,” Borough President Howard Golden of Brooklyn said.

Now one would have to dial “1″ before dialing the area code and the 7-digit number (which itself hadn’t always been numeric).

Legal action was threatened. City Council President Carol Bellamy said it was ”unfair to penalize people for the needs of machines” meaning fax machines then and not computers or cell phones. State Attorney General Robert Abrams called the action ”bad public policy.” Mayor Koch optimistically predicted that the city would survive having two area codes.

The city did survive but the changes kept coming. The Bronx became part of 718 as well and then 917 was introduced for cell phones and pagers. Eventually there came a time when even within Manhattan there was a need for a new area code. Yes, Manhattan itself would be sundered. Say it isn’t so! Is nothing sacred?!

The discussion heated up in 1997 with the State Public Service Commission suggesting the creation of 646 for use in Manhattan. The reaction was apocalyptic. “(H)ow will 212-ers feel if they are to unceremoniously dumped and lose what they consider to be the center of the area code universe? And how will 646-ers feel, branded so clearly as newcomers?” Did you even know that there was an “area code universe”? Would you want to be banished to the boonies of the area code universe?

The phone company was aware of these grievances. ‘There very often are sensitivities,” said Dennis Wax of Nynex. Remember Nynex? But as with Koch before him, Wax optimistically predicted ”People adapt quickly. By now, 718 people are identified as New Yorkers as well as 212 people.” Tell that to Melanie Griffith as a Staten Island working girl or to John Travolta as a Brooklyn Saturday night dancer. 718-people know they legally live in New York City but everyone knows 212-people are the center of the universe. Now even that sense of identity for Manhattanites was threatened too. Where would it end?

The headline the next day exposed the truth:

Manhattan Is Awash In Area Code Angst

That’s right. Area code angst had disrupted the Big Apple. According to the reporter, “But faced with the possibility of losing 212, a legend among area codes, not all Manhattan residents remained calm, particularly since one possibility would be assigning them to 718″ a presumed fate worse than death.

”It’s terrible, it’s a putdown,” said a publicist who lives on the Upper East Side and liked her phone number as is. ”When people meet someone in a bar and they ask what’s your number and they say ‘718,’ they’ll say, ‘Oh I don’t want to go out with her.’ I’m from Chicago, I didn’t move here to become a 718.”

The 212 area code was deemed inextricably linked to the city’s sophisticated image.

”Manhattan is the hub of the universe,” said another resident of the Upper East Side. ”I feel we should have our own area code. It should be 111, because we are the hub.”

A small business owner, said that, professionally speaking, 212 is much more desirable than 718. ”You work hard to have an operation in Manhattan; you don’t want to look like you’re in Brooklyn. ‘If I say 718, people will think Brooklyn.” Evidently the idea that Brooklyn one day would be desirable had not occurred to him.

A graduate student at New York University who used to live in Los Angeles, brought a California perspective to understanding one’s place in the area code universe. He informed New Yorkers that in Los Angeles young people depended on area codes  to size each other up – there were five for the metropolitan region. ”There are 213 women, there are 310 woman,” he said. ”A 310 is yuppie, young, living near the beach. A 213 is more of an urban hipster. The beach crowd frowned on the 213 crowd.” He said he was happy to escape such area code and demographic diversity and move to Manhattan, where he saw the 212 area code as a ”badge of honor.” ”It immediately marks you,” he said. ”Big city, glamour, tuxedos, excitement.”

Besides the putdowns of those confined to the 718 area code and the fear of being switched from 212 to that inferior number, there were some historic perspectives. Some people “grew nostalgic about the days when Manhattanites were assigned phone numbers that began with words: PEnnsylvania 6-5000. The prefixes corresponded to different regions of the city — Columbus was the prefix for the area near Columbus Circle, and Butterfield was assigned to the Upper East Side.”

Back then, you really knew someone’s place from their phone number. ”You knew what neighborhood a person lived in as soon as you heard their number,” said the co-owner of a New York book store. ”There was something nice about that.” She said she would not be devastated by an area code change, but she had what she considered a tidier solution: assigning a new area code to fax machines, which would free up thousands of phone numbers. ”It would make a lot more sense,” she said. ”Everything in New York changes, so we can live with this. But changing the fax machines would be much easier, in my opinion.” Of course, that didn’t happen.

A regular reader of my posts informed me that area code 646 was a basis for a Seinfeld episode. According to Wikipedia, “”The Long-Distance Relationship” was the working title for the 175th episode which aired on April 30, 1998, during the ninth and final season.

In it Kramer signs up to receive restaurant menus by fax but uses Elaine’s phone number, mistakenly thinking she had a fax machine. Annoyed by the non-stop calls from the fax service, she receives, Elaine changes her phone number and gets one with the 646 area code. She is not happy with the new number.  When attempting to give her number to an initially-eager man, he hesitates when he sees the 646 area code and asks if it is in New Jersey. Her response is, “No, it’s just like 212 except they multiplied every number by 3… and added 1 to the middle number.” He makes an excuse and walks off. When her neighbor Mrs. Krantz dies, Elaine manages to get her old 212 number. Mrs. Krantz’s grandson Bobby keeps calling Elaine’s apartment, ignorant of the fact that his grandmother is dead. Elaine tries to convince Bobby that his grandmother has died by pretending to die herself; this backfires when Bobby dials 911 and firefighters beat down Elaine’s door.

Most likely, fiction is stranger than truth and certainly funnier, but the episode did speak a truth.

Even now in 2015, the legacy of the 212 area code continues in the real world as the March 25th headline “As City Gains Area Codes, Still Coveting the Original’ shows.  A couple moving from Boston to New York dreaded receiving a second-rate area code saying of 212: “It’s a status symbol most definitely.” A market for 212 numbers now exists with prices ranging from $75 to over $1,000. People lust to get a 212 number for their cell phone. How much more alpha can one get!

The trauma of losing a precious area code number is not something to be taken lightly. It is no trivial matter. It goes to one’s sense of place. Just as I knew I was from New Rochelle and not Scarsdale because my phone number growing up began with NE and not SC, so area codes later became part of our identity. Now as the 315 people begin to be divided into two classes of people, at least we can take solace from one incontrovertible fact about the 315 area code – it really is upstate, isn’t it? You wouldn’t want to mix up upstate people with downstate people would you?

Reader Comment on the Origin of 212

I always enjoy reading your posts but this one, more than any others that caused chuckles, had me laughing out loud. I’m a total “systems” and map nerd, so I enjoyed this particularly because it involves both. I don’t know if you know the technological history of area codes, but in the old days of dial phones, each number represented a “click” and when area codes were assigned in 1947, “the phone company,” as Lily Tomlin would say, used the expectation of how many calls a place would get in assigning them. The fewest “clicks” were assigned to the place where most long-distance calls would go. Therefore, 2+1+2 adds up to 5, thereby giving NYC the “lowest” number of clicks. 2+1+3 adds up to 6, giving LA the second lowest, tied with 3+1+2, also adding up to 6, Chicago, and so on, up the number system. And remember in the old days, only 1 or 0 were in the center of an area code. How that’s changed!

And of course the use of letters, because it was thought people couldn’t easily remember more than 5 digits. I believe it was a New Yorker article I saw from several years ago [] talking about the romance of those mixed phone numbers, ending with the comment that “Butterfield 8-1000” or whatever the number was in a play title would be the much less interesting “212-288-1000” in present-day parlance. Change the Glenn Miller title you cited in the same way and it just wouldn’t be as interesting.

Thanks for the Monday morning laugh.

Dr. Peter Feinman
Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education
PO Box 41
Purchase, NY 10577

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.