LA's Area Code Obsession


By Dinah Lenney
Published: October 7, 2007

In L.A., we define ourselves (and each other) however we can. Consider what your Prius or your Hummer says about your politics. How about your choice of hand-held cellular device -- is it a BlackBerry or an iPhone? Even your phone number itself: If you can be reached at 310, say the kids in my afternoon carpool, you're rich. At 626, your parents are probably Republicans. As for the 818, "That's, like, the Valley," says one of the girls, slipping into dialect.

Before you object and sign your letter Pro-Choice in Pasadena, yes, of course I'm generalizing. People starve in the 310, just as somebody, no doubt, is in the middle of a remodel the size of Antarctica in the 213. But we take comfort in stereotypes, don't we? That's why plans to change area codes -- like the one that's currently on the table in the Valley -- always cause such a ruckus. It's not the inconvenience, it's what the new digits will say about us.

The fact is, phone numbers have long been a clue to social standing. Once upon a time in New York City -- in the days before 718, when all five boroughs were 212 -- there were old-fashioned exchanges that set people apart from one another. BU for Butterfield, for instance (memorialized by John O'Hara in his 1935 novel, "Butterfield 8"), or TR for Trafalgar. Both of those pegged a person for the upper-Eastsider she was. Chances are the kids went to Dalton, Chapin or P.S. 6, took ballroom dancing and rode English, not Western.

In L.A., where money trumps class, 213 was the original prefix to exchanges such as Bradshaw for Beverly Hills, Thornwall for Burbank and Vermont for Culver City. But the exchanges eventually bit the dust, replaced by numbers, and the 213 area code was abandoned to parts southeast ("So ghetto," say the carpool kids) when the Valley converted to 818 in 1984, the Westside switched to 310 in 1991 and the 323 area code was created in 1998.

Today, once again, new codes are in the offing. If you're contemplating a move to West L.A. and relishing what the 310 will say about you, you may be in for a shock: Since last August, some new phones have been assigned to the recently created 424 overlay -- which may consequently leave you marked as nouveau riche (as if anyone in Beverly Hills isn't). If you settle on the wrong side of Whole Foods in Sherman Oaks, it is possible that you'll be relegated to 747 -- just like the plane, a metaphor for the SUV you haven't been able to give up, you Valley girl, you.

On the other hand, if you have ever felt diminished by the 818 area code -- "Everyone thinks I live in Burbank," whines a friend -- a new area code in that part of town (expected to be voted on by the Public Utilities Commission before the end of the year), might signify a whole new start.

The changes are coming, state regulators say, because we're about to use up our options in the established territories (thanks to the proliferation of fax machines and cellphones and to general growth). According to a recent story in The Times, area codes have 792 prefixes, each with 10,000 available phone numbers -- and the 818 only has 61 prefixes left. Officials say there won't be a single available number in the 818 by the end of 2009.

But why do we care about those three little numbers? Can they really make such a difference in our self-esteem? Before games when he was a star USC running back, Reggie Bush wrote his area code -- 619 for San Diego County -- in silver ink in the black patches under his eyes, to remind himself where he comes from. And how to explain my tone when an unsuspecting receptionist pauses over my phone number on a medical form? "310?" she asks politely. "323," I retort, as if to say, "What do you take me for?"

It's true, I take pride in my three-digit prefix; it mitigates the effect of my minivan, for one thing, and combined with a 664 exchange, it ensures my connection to all that's hip and happening in Silver Lake. My phone number is my guaranteed club card, saves me from associations with the superficiality of the Westside, the provinciality of the Valley, the density and urban decay of parts east. In my admittedly addled brain, the 323 gives me points for cool.

Of course, I know deep down that these numbers don't mean anything anymore, if they ever did. Because, these days, area codes don't necessarily correspond with ZIP Codes, have you noticed? With a cellphone, often as not, we get to choose what area code we want, or to keep one that no longer applies geographically. L.A. is full of people answering cellphones with 212 numbers. An area code today can be as deceptive as a Kate Spade bag or a beautiful pair of breasts. Who's to say it's real?

The long-haul cultural implications are disconcerting and worrisome too. Fine for those of you who know how to operate your electronic address books, who can store all those numbers and call them up with the press of a single key. But for the rest of us -- a whole generation of people who have to call our cellphones from our and lines because we can't remember where we left them -- how are we supposed to keep track of all these numbers?

And how precarious our lives must be -- how bereft of meaning -- if we're reliant on a three-digit code to determine our worth, as if we could be rung up and judged worthy.

Dinah Lenney plays nurse Shirley on "ER" and is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, A Memoir."