The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seven-seven-what? After 74 years, D.C. braces for a new area code.

J.C. Smith, whose company Bailiwick Clothing sells a “202” area-code-themed T-shirt, said some people have asked whether he’ll sell a “771” shirt. “But not that many people.” (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

The plethora of timeless symbols that define Washington include the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and a venerated area code that evokes power and prestige: 202 — the digital entryway to the nation’s capital.

For now.

After 74 years, a city accustomed to all manners of change — new presidents, new senators, new restaurants, new neighborhoods — will face another shift: a second area code.

Alongside 202, later this fall there will be 771 — sandwiched between 770 (in the Atlanta suburbs) and 772 (in east central Florida).

Not everyone is adjusting to the looming change with ease.

“202 has always been Washington — it’s as much Washington as the Capitol building,” fretted Robert Shrum, the veteran Democratic consultant who still maintains his 202 number 16 years after leaving D.C. for California.

“771?” he asked, sounding incredulous. “I’m trying to think of an analogy but one doesn’t immediately spring to mind. I get to keep the 202, right?”

Rest easy: 771 is for new phone numbers only.

In a city of infinite government acronyms, it’s only fitting that the seismic telephonic shift was enacted by an agency that draws little notice, the D.C. Public Service Commission (DCPSC), which notes that 202 is expected to “run out of new phone numbers” next year. The 771 area code could be assigned as early as Nov. 9.

The commission also announced that Washingtonians will have to dial all 10 digits when making local calls beginning Oct. 9.

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In a television ad, the commission touts the arrival of the 771 area code as among “a number of great things going on in this city” as images flash by of Union Market, a Metro bus and a “We Are Anacostia” mural.

“Whatever your area code — 202 or 771 — we’re all proud to be called a Washingtonian,” the narrator says.

Yet the distinction in area codes — one suggesting longtime roots in Washington, the other evidence of a more recent transplant — could become a new status symbol in a status-obsessed city.

Donna Brazile, for one, is all too happy to hang on to her 202 number.

“Sounds like we are aboard the next ‘starship’ with flight number 771,” texted the Democratic strategist who lives in D.C. “Can you imagine my folks in Louisiana remembering area code 771 when they’re evacuating during the next hurricane?”

Tommy McFly, a podcast and radio host who moved from Pennsylvania to D.C. in 2006, recalled the pride he felt when he got his new 202 telephone number. “It blew my little Scranton mind,” he said. “It made me feel like a Washingtonian.”

The arrival of 771, he said, feels “gross and bland” and “makes me so angry.” He said the remaining 202 numbers should be reserved for D.C. denizens, with 771 assigned to federal agencies.

“I don’t think a member of Congress from Missouri would appreciate the 202 as much as someone who lives here,” he said. “There are probably tens of thousands of 202 numbers that could be given back to the people.”

The agita strikes some as a tad overwrought.

“Getting high and mighty about an area code is a little much for me,” said Josh Burch, a statehood activist. He sees the addition of 771 as a positive development — fresh evidence that D.C. has grown enough to deserve voting rights in Congress.

“There will be a whole new generation of 771 that will look at us old heads as people from a previous era,” he said. “202 is great, but we’ll embrace 771, too.”

What’s the 411 on 771? Experts examine Washington’s new area code.

D.C.’s 202 dates back to 1947, the era of the rotary phone, when AT&T designated area codes across the country to facilitate long-distance calls that did not require an operator. Those states small enough to only have only one area code — Maryland (301) and Virginia (703), for example — were assigned ones with a ‘0’.

More populous states were given multiple area codes that included a ‘1,’ such as New York City’s 212, Los Angeles’s 213 and Chicago’s 312.

In the early 1980s, New York officials protested when Brooklyn and Queens were stripped of the iconic 212 and assigned 718. “Seinfeld” dramatized area code anxiety more than a decade later, when Elaine, a resident of Manhattan, tried to explain to a prospective date the meaning of her 646.

“It’s a new area code,” she says.

“What area?” the man asks. “New Jersey?

“No, no,” Elaine insists. “It’s right here in the city. It’s the same as 212.”

After asking if he has to “dial a one first,” the man retreats, explaining, “I’m really kinda seein’ somebody.”

Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor who can remember a time when phone numbers began with letters, said Gotham “has survived every assault on its status,” including the assigning of 347 and other new area codes.

But he said the prospect of dialing 771 to reach the high and mighty in Washington is an “insult to the status of the nation’s capital.”

“It’s second tier,” he said. “It’s like getting a seat in the balcony.”

Heidi Wayman, a manager at the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, which designates the country’s area codes, wrote in an email that she was “unaware” of any complaints about the new area code.

She said that 771 was chosen “for a variety of factors,” including that it “doesn’t conflict with any adjacent area codes and there are no dialing conflicts that will arise when the new area code is implemented.”

Anthony Muhammad, 64, a resident of Southeast, said he views the addition of 771 as “an attempt to erase anything old D.C. It’s almost like a generation dying off. Phone numbers have a history to them.”

He said he can’t imagine 771 ever possessing the cachet of 202.

“You see the 202 coming in on your phone and it’s familiar — oh that’s someone from D.C., that’s an important call,” he said. “With 771, I’m going to have to guess.”

A sense of D.C. pride is what led J.C. Smith, an Ohio native, and his brother to design a 202 logo for T-shirts that became a bestseller when they started Bailiwick Clothing in 2016. Bryce Harper, then of the Washington Nationals, showed up at a postgame news conference in a 202 T-shirt.

“To the outside world, 202 is the number you call to reach your senator, it’s about power,” Smith said. “But to us, it means you’ve been around for a while. It’s a kind of bona fide.”

He and his brother have talked about designing a 771 T-shirt, though they’re not convinced it’s a moneymaker, at least not yet.

“People have asked,” he said. “But not that many people.”

Mindy Moretti, for one, promised in a tweet that a 771 T-shirt would never replace the one she wears with a 202.

“It’s like an empty office in an empty office park,” she said of the new area code. “It means nothing.”