(Area) Code-Breaking in Chicago

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

(Area) Code-Breaking in Chicago


Aug. 22, 2009

Drag a finger across the screen of my iPhone and you’ll find its phone book crawling with 815s and 217s.

Keep on scrolling and you’ll come across 630s, 708s and 847s, along with a slew of big numbers from out-of-state that resemble Kevin Gregg’s August ERA as much as they do area codes.

Yet, just like the Cubs’ erstwhile closer, these digits belong to Chicagoans.

(Unfortunately, in the case of Gregg.)

Last week, the front page of newspapers in Chicago screamed with the story that the City of Big Shoulders has gotten too big for its britches in regards to phone numbers.

As a result, come Nov. 1, the North American Numbering Plan Administration (imagine working there) will bestow upon Chicago a third area code (872) to accompany its already existing prefixes of 312 and 773.

Now, while getting the 411 about 872 was interesting, the new code’s impending arrival isn’t nearly as newsworthy as when 773 went into service for Chicago’s northern, western and southern neighborhoods 13 years ago.

That’s because, these days, as anyone who lives in the Windy City knows, the relevance of Chicago area codes has been cracked by the popularity of cell phones.

Use myself as an example. Since 2005, when I moved to Chicago, I’ve technically been living in the 773 code. Yet, my cell phone has steadfastly remained an 815.

That’s the area code of Ottawa, where I was living in north central Illinois when I purchased my first cell phone back in 1999. And, of course, it’s the area code for Bourbonnais, where I’m proud to say I grew up.

In fact, except for a four-year stint in Champaign during college when I was a 217, I’ve been an 815 since the day I was born. I’ve never felt the need to change, no matter what the address on my driver’s license says.

And in Chicago, I’m far from the only one to take part in this, the biggest trend in codes since DaVinci.

“Area codes are becoming more about where you’re from – or where you went to college at – than where you live,” observed my younger brother, John, a fellow Chicagoan who also continues to represent 815 in the 773.

Like ATM cards, e-mail and reality television, cell phones have become a staple of our 21st century society. So much so, in fact, that I can’t think of even five Chicago friends in their 20s or 30s who still have a landline phone at their apartment or condo.

You either call their cell, or you don’t call at all.

That’s a far cry from 1947, when 86 Numbering Plan Areas (NPAs) were first assigned throughout the United States and Canada, providing area codes with their origin.

Back then, 34 states — including, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Kentucky — had just one area code. Today, only 13 states still have a single code.

Illinois originally was assigned four area codes: 312 (Chicago and suburbs), 815 (Rockford, Kankakee, Quad Cities), 217 (Springfield, East St. Louis) and 618 (southern Illinois, not including East St. Louis).

Now, with the addition of 872, the area codes in northeast Illinois alone number 10: 312, 773, 872, 708, 630, 815, 847, 224, 779 and 331.

Yet, ironically, the more area codes we get, the less they matter.

According to the wireless industry group CTIA, at the end of 1996 – just after 773 was established in Chicago – there were 44 million total wireless subscribers in the U.S. By the end of last year, that number had swelled to 270 million.

As more college grads move to Chicago – and wherever else – with established cell numbers already in tow, I get the sense that in the future the importance of area codes will be something that can, well, just be phoned in.

I’d say the No. 1 reason behind the demise of area codes in Chicago is convenience (cell phone users don’t want the hassle of alerting friends to a new number), followed closely by ignorance.

Think about it. If you primarily use a cell phone to make calls, odds are you have very few numbers memorized any more. You simply locate a name in your cell’s phone book and press “dial.”

Myself, I can still rattle off the home numbers of my childhood friends. But, if I had to dial any of my buddies in Chicago off the top of my head, I’d be more clueless than the Cubs in October.

Because of those reasons, my friend Pat — a fellow 815er, who has lived in Chicago since 2005 — said he has no plans to ever go to the trouble of acquiring a new cell phone number, even if he moved to, say, Mars.

“Nah, that’s so much work,” Pat said. “And it doesn’t really matter. No one uses (cell) phones where you have to dial the area code anymore.

“And if they do … I don’t want to talk to them anyway.”

He was joking.

I think.

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