Between the 929, the 718, the 646, and nearly a half a dozen more, New York City is a thicket of area codes. They abut, interlock, and overlap to the general confusion of callers and caller ID interpreters. But New Yorkers of a certain age will remember the halcyon days when one area code — the good ol’ 212 — spanned the five boroughs. Today, a number beginning in 212 is seen as a badge of honor and a certificate of “old New York” authenticity. But just what is the origin of these humble digits and what precipitated the balkanization of the Big Apple’s phone lines?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the genesis of the 212 — and area codes altogether, actually — lies with a familiar name: AT&T. In 1947, the telecom giant and a conglomerate lead by Bell Telephone divvied up the United States and Canada into 86 original area codes, including the 212. The move set the stage for phone calling as we know it today, ushering in what’s known as direct distance dialing in favor of the old, operator-connected system.
The North American Numbering Plan (NANP) actually followed a certain logic. No area code could begin with 0 or 1 for fear of confusing switching equipment prone to ignoring leading 1’s and interpreting 0’s as operator requests. However, the second digit of each of the original 86 area codes was one of those two digits, with 0’s marking codes that covered entire states or provinces and 1’s for those holding down regions within a larger entity.
That was all well and good until the mid-1980’s, when New York’s population began to outstrip the reservoir of available phone numbers. So despite the protestations of some residents and local lawmakers, the New York Public Service Commission handed down a new area code to Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island effective September 1st, 1984. Newly-minted residents of the 718 had a short grace period during which both codes could be dialed, but by 1985, the 212 was the exclusive pride of the Bronx and Manhattan.
A New York Times headline from August 31st, 1984 sums up the general ambivalence towards the change: “LIKE IT OR NOT, CITY GETS 2D AREA CODE TODAY.” The Newspaper of Record goes on to say that “the impending change has brought confusion and anger” to bridge-and-tunnel communities and “confirmed yet again some ancient and deep-seated strains of outer-borough paranoia.”
The Times article also includes a city councilwoman’s suspicion that the Bronx, too, would soon be shunted into the pool of “unfashionable” secondary codes. A prophetic suspicion, it turned out, as the Bronx was annexed to 718 territory in 1992.
Old dial phones made “212” an obvious choice for an area code. “The higher the number, the longer it took for the phone to register what number was being dialed, so the logical way to assign codes was to give the lowest numbers to the most-used numbers,” Untapped Cities reader Jay Klotz explains. “Since New York was the largest city with the most people and businesses, it got the lowest possible number, 212 (five clicks of the dial). The next two cities, Chicago and Los Angeles, got the next lowest possible numbers, 312 and 213, respectively (six clicks of the dial).”
In the interim years, the city has been further partitioned and overlaid with more codes as demand for cell service joined that of traditional land lines. And with each added area code, the prestige of the 212 reaches new heights, its OG status burnished by every latecomer. And keep coming they will; even though each new area code effectively doubles the number of available phone numbers, NYC is expected to burn through its available stock sometime this year, according to a recent Times article.
When that happens, yet another new code will be in order. Presumably, that will push going rate for these commodified codes, especially valuable for businesses wanting to connote deep New York roots, even higher than the “$75 to more than $1,000” that the Times reported in 2015. If money can’t buy happiness, at least it can buy you bragging rights in New York City.