Friday, February 22, 2013

Bordering on the Bizarre

Over the last few weeks my family and I have been adapting to a change in my status at work. It's mostly good news - I am now full-time, but am also working a different shift, and serving an area of Allegheny County with which I am less familiar. Like anything else, it's a learning experience.

One thing I have learned from nearly 30 years of doing this kind of work is the effect of boundary lines on how people live their lives - what type of services they receive, where their kids go to school, how much things cost, how well they are informed, how much freedom they really have. 

When I lived in Colorado, I commented extensively on the manner in which cities out there grow by annexation of the unincorporated territory that makes up most of the counties in the state. Boundary lines in this environment changed frequently, dramatically, and sometimes with curious consequences - one example is available here.

In Pennsylvania, most of these boundary lines are much older, and in many cases seemingly cut in stone. In the nearly two years that I've been back, I've noted several examples of how these lines create situations and conditions that approach a different kind of boundary - that distinguishing common sense from what is often something less. 

Every so often I'll highlight one of these quirky situations, and try to dig deeper to figure out just why - from a historical, traditional, or political standpoint - we did this to ourselves.

What's in an Area Code?

An aerial map of the Leetsdale area, with Area Code and County boundaries added. Leet Township, Leetsdale, and Bell Acres are divided between the 412 and 724 area codes.

The amount of telephone numbers that we attach ourselves to has proliferated along with the age of wireless telecommunication and portable computing. Where once we had a home phone number and a work phone number, we now have mobile phones for multiple family members, fax machines, pagers, and even multiple residential lines - all placing a significant demand on the finite numerical resources within a 10-digit telephone number system.

Since the implementation of direct dialing of long distance calls in the late 1940's, the allocation of area codes and phone numbers has been accomplished via the North American Numbering Plan, or NANP.

The administrator of the NANP is responsible for receiving and reviewing requests for telephone numbers by the numerous types of telephone service providers that have proliferated with technologies such as cell phones, Voice over Internet Protocol phone service (Vonage, MagicJack), and Competitive Local Exchange Carriers, or CLECs, that compete with the Incumbent carriers, or ILECs, which are in most areas the legacy phone companies that have evolved from the breakup of the Bell System in the mid-1980's.

Verizon is the ILEC for the Sewickley area. Comcast/Xfinity is an example of a CLEC.

When the amount of local exchange numbers began to approach exhaustion from all of these requests for exchanges and number assignments, the NANP administrator began the process of assigning new area codes to places where this number growth was occurring most rapidly - that being major cities.

Shortly before I moved to Colorado, the 303 area code that stretched across the state was truncated to serve just the Denver area, replaced in areas outside by the 970 area code. Just three years later, demand for numbers required the assignment of another area code in Metro Denver. Administrators there decided to overlay 720 on top of 303 - this meant that your new neighbors across the street could have a different area code, and that dialing 10 digits for local calls was the new normal for using the phone.

That same year, 1998, brought the division of the 412 area code, which served all of southwestern Pennsylvania. Numbering administrators here elected to separate the new 724 area code from 412 along existing geographic boundaries that separated different local phone exchanges.

This was by media accounts at the time a contentious transition, especially in Pittsburgh's northern suburbs and in Moon and Crescent Townships, where the 457 exchange was placed into 724. This created an an issue with emergency services access, as Allegheny County had yet to implement 9-1-1 service county-wide. 

A current map of Pennsylvania area codes, showing the 878 area code overlaid on 412 and 724.

At the same time, NANP administration also assigned an overlay code - 878 - that would cover both 412 and 724 for future assignment. The map above shows the current state of area codes in Pennsylvania.

In the Sewickley area, portions of Leetsdale, Leet Township, and Bell Acres Borough had always been split between the 741 (Sewickley) and 266 (Ambridge) exchanges. The division of 412 and 724 meant that these communities would now also be split between two area codes.

Reviewing maps of the exchange boundaries makes it pretty simple to see why the Fair Oaks section of Leet Township and that part of Bell Acres along Big Sewickley Creek Road were included in the Ambridge exchange. When telephone service started, and lines were strung from central offices to various pockets of population, the closest central office was typically the one that neighborhoods were connected to.

Ferry Street at Beaver Road in Leetsdale, looking west toward Route 65 and the Ohio River. The area code boundary follows this street, across 65 and the railroad tracks, all the way to the river.

However, the 266 boundary takes a decided dogleg south along the eastern border of Leetsdale to Ferry Street, where it then follows Ferry west to the Ohio River. This makes for some interesting observations, as shown in two of the illustrations above. Walking along Broad Street north of Ferry, in area code 724, it's kind of strange to look east at the houses along Myrtle Hill Road in Leet Township, which is in area code 412.

Yes, they had to draw the line somewhere..but why there

An 1877 E.L. Hayes and Company map showing the town plan of then-unincorporated Leetsdale, circa 1877. Ferry Ave. (now Ferry St.) shows as the southern boundary of residential development. Aside from the railroad tracks and Leetsdale Station (which today houses Red Cap Cleaners), there is very little west of the tracks today that resembles the residential areas depicted. The brickworks, purchased by the Harmony Society in 1888, would be just north of this area along the river. 

There are no clear-cut answers, but there are plenty of clues, some of which are provided by those who painstakingly maintain, and make available, historical artifacts and documents.

Part of this includes maps of Leetsdale dating to 1877 (shown above) which display residential plot plans and street layouts showing Ferry Street being the southernmost boundary of the fledgling town's development at that time. This may bolster a theory that there was little organized development south of Ferry Street when the first telephone lines were being run.

Other maps from this same time period show the town of Economy, now known as Ambridge, and the influence exerted both within and outside of that community by the industrial, economic, and religious engine known as the Harmony Society.

The same E.L. Hayes and Co. map showing Economy (now Ambridge), with shading and annotation showing the influence of the Harmony Society. Also shown on the map are Fair Oak (the Fair Oaks section of Leet Township) immediately adjacent, followed by Leetsdale, and across the Ohio River the village of Shousetown, now known as the Glenwillard section of Crescent Township. 

Founded in 1805, and lasting just 100 years due to their unflagging resolve in following the doctrine established by their founder, George Rapp - which included celibacy - the Harmonists exerted considerable influence in the development of various industrial enterprises along the Ohio Valley and in Beaver County.

In the mid to late 19th century, the remaining Harmonists, becoming impaired by dwindling numbers and old age, began to diversify their operations by acquiring failing industrial concerns outside their immediate area, and hiring outside help to run them. One of these enterprises was an existing brickworks in Leetsdale. 

Steam drier at the Harmony Brick Works in Leetsdale, circa 1898. The site is now occupied by the Leetsdale Industrial Park. 

The Harmonists sold their brickworks and surrounding land to James Oliver in 1902 for real estate development. Leetsdale, along with her southern neighbor Edgeworth, incorporated as boroughs in 1904.

According to a 1906 map of the borough, Oliver intended to develop the brickworks site for residential land, with streets named after the Presidents. Only Washington Street remains of this intended plan - the remainder of the site eventually became the location of Bethlehem Steel's Leetsdale plant. 

The original brickworks was excavated during an extensive archaeological dig in 2002, prior to the site's re-development as the Leetsdale Industrial Park.

So it would seem that the combination of an early town development boundary, combined with an industrial presence that connected early Leetsdale with what would eventually become Ambridge, drove the placement of telephone wiring that would link the Ambridge area with part of Leetsdale Borough to this day.

It's probably also why Leetsdale has a Rapp Street.

Does It Really Matter Anymore? Yes...

It can be argued, depending on how involved one is with technology, that area codes are rapidly becoming an anachronism of sorts nowadays. There are plenty of ways to associate yourself with an area code of your choosing, whether through dropping landline telephone service in favor of a mobile phone, bring your old number along using Local Number Portability, or use a service such as Google Voice.

Just last week it was announced that the 878 area code was being tapped for the first time to address the approaching exhaustion of numbers in the areas served by 724. The Post-Gazette report also quoted NANP administrators as estimating that there were sufficient number resources in 412 to keep the assignment of 878 numbers there at bay for an estimated 5 years.

It may be fair to say that just as industry drove the shaping of telephone boundaries over 100 years ago, the growth of another industry - the one dealing with natural gas exploration - may be driving more changes today.

Irrespective of what happens down the road, it's really important that we as communities keep track of where we've been. I now regret those moments in elementary school when we collectively groaned at the prospect of yet another field trip to Old Economy. Not anymore... 

There are several other examples I've found of how history, development, population, and politics have created boundaries, relationships, and ways of doing things that seem crazy on the surface. 

I'll be exploring these in the coming months - if you know of something that fits, or have more to add on our local history, I'd love to hear about it.