Where one lives or where one grows up often forms the cornerstone of their identity. For generations, city-derived nouns sufficed as labels: Angeleno, New Yorker, Bostonian, et cetera. But once the telephone became ubiquitous, the concept of place found a new expression in the form of the area code, and today one finds area code tee shirts, hats, and pendants representing cities across the nation. People even sport area code tattoos, a practice initially adopted by street gangs. Such declarations of territory have become commonplace and suggest a preference for tribal identity despite living in the modern day.
But how cohesive is that tribe? In cities plagued by disappearing communities and broken families, might affinity for an area code symbolize the fantasy of neighborhood? By identifying with a particular region on the grid, one seeks to ground oneself in a rapidly changing world. The inclination is natural, but are the results productive or even real? Despite the pride involved, the expedient of indexing oneself with a three-digit prefix comes with a trade-off: dehumanization.
The link between telephony and identity is, however, ultimately nostalgic. Even on a technological level, the phenomenon remains a willful act of imagination; no area code exists outside of time. As populations expand, traditional codes reach their numerical limits and new prefixes covering the same or modified areas are introduced. Cities that were once equivalent to a single code splinter into multiple codes which in turn undergo varying degrees of topographic expansion and contraction. Mobile phones add another layer of complexity, as the origination of a call does not necessarily correspond to the area code detected by caller ID. And with the advent of smartphones, people barely remember numbers anyway.
The idea that a number represents a place may also be out of touch politically speaking. As power becomes more centralized, places become less distinct. Today we live in conurbations largely defined by national and multinational corporations. The Information Age has given rise to the Corporopolis whereby small businesses have been relegated to restaurants, boutiques, or specialty services. In response to the notion of the great American road trip, “Don’t bother,” said one corporate road warrior. “It’s pretty much all the same. Sometimes I don’t even know what state I’m in.”
White-collar cynicism aside, does she have a point? Given the geographical, meteorological, architectural, and cultural variables that characterize American cities, what is this sameness that she perceives? Perhaps within a corporate value system, there are no places, only coordinates on a map defined by the presence of capital or lack thereof. Strange that the American Dream could produce a reality verging on Big Brother, or should we say, Big Brothers? Alas, gangs exist at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.