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Backstory: In area codes, 212 is the only-est number

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2007



Billy Zhou, a real estate agent from Queens, N.Y., would pay $1,000 for the right cellphone number. Like most things worth overpaying for, the number has to be big, shiny, and ostentatious. In other words, it has to begin with 212, the area code for that sliver of land just across the East River – Manhattan.

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"It's just something rare that no one else is going to get," says Mr. Zhou. "People are always surprised that you have a 212 number."

The market dictates that when there's demand, someone will soon supply. Enter Sal Pugliese, a second-year MBA student at the State University of New York, Albany.

Mr. Pugliese has devised a way to procure, by the dozen, cellphone numbers with the coveted prefix. He sells them on eBay and Craigslist to the tune of $250 each, earning about $1,000 monthly. His clients come from far and wide, including dejected New Yorkers stuck with the less recognizable 718, 347, or 646 area codes, and people from upstate and New Jersey. He even has customers in Florida and Georgia.

"It's crazy how these people eat this stuff up," he says. "Everybody thinks it's so cool."

The geographic diversity of Pugliese's clientele only seems to validate what New Yorkers have always said: Civilization has a center, and they live in it. But instead of bodily moving to the concrete jungle – an old-fashioned notion in a cyberenabled world – this new generation of aspiring New Yorkers simply obtains the city's area code. With three simple digits, they tap into the glamour of "Sex and the City," Wall Street, Broadway, and P Diddy. They've made it.

"If you had to assign a number to the center of the universe in the American mind, that number might as well be 212," says Robert Thompson, a professor of media at Syracuse University in New York. "It's probably one of the most intensely imagined square miles in the nation, and to a degree, in the world."

And the desire to be associated with this imagined nexus has spawned a niche market in cellphone real estate. AccessDirect, a provider of VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) systems, charges 10 percent more for its 212 numbers, promising a "virtual office in New York." Ads by people like Pugliese who've figured out how to land the numbers, meanwhile, appear daily in classified sites across the Internet.

The area code is a rare gem, indeed. Seventy-three percent of all 212 numbers are in use, compared with 55 percent for 310, the area code for Beverly Hills, another prestigious prefix. And the end is in sight: The 212 reservoir is forecast to reach exhaustion by 2009, according to a report by the North American Numbering Plan Administration.

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If your area code is 212, says Frantz Fils, an event and party promoter, "people – whether they realize it or not – just assume that you're better off." A resident of Brooklyn who tried – and failed – to find an affordable 212 number, he explains: "The boss is always in Manhattan. It's the city of bosses."

And identifying yourself with bossdom, Mr. Fils reasons, brings a litany of benefits. Merely existing (or seeming to) in New York City means you're paying one of the highest rents in the world. This signifies that you're earning good money, which, in turn, implies that you're good at what you do. It also means that people want to be around you, if only to mooch off your good fortune. For a promoter, like Fils, this is important. If you hand out an event flyer with a 718 contact, he says, no one will come. But if it's 212, people will make a point to attend.

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