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Phone exchange names once defined neighbourhoods Add to ...

Were you a WAlnut or a CHerry? How about a PRincess or a GRover, and I don't mean the lovable blue Sesame Street character.

I'm referring, of course, to the old Toronto telephone exchange names, and if you're over 50, you probably remember yours. I was born eight years after Bell Canada announced it would gradually phase out exchange names in favour of "all-number calling" in 1960. (The era truly ended with the release of the March, 1966, phone book, which excluded exchange names for the first time.) But I do remember when I got my first cell phone with the new 647 area code. How alien! Where, exactly, was that? It sure didn't feel like Toronto and I begged, in vain, for my service provider to reconsider this blow to my geographic ego and placate me with a good ol' 416.

I imagine folks felt the same way upon hearing they were losing EMpire, UNiversity, RIverdale, GErrard, GLadstone and HArgrave (the last four were amalgamated to become the HOward exchange in 1957). These familiar little words had been around for so long, they'd become more than mere mnemonic devices, they'd become signifiers of place. It's not a stretch to assume that as a HArgrave in a dilapidated old semi-detached at Danforth and Greenwood, you might pine to be a HIckory in a new Don Mills split-level.

Toronto Daily Star columnist Ron Haggart reacted to Bell's announcement with his tongue firmly in cheek, writing that in future recordings of the song PEnnsylvania 6-5000, "the musicians will, of course, stand up and chant, 'Seven three six five thousand.' " In 1962, he wrote more seriously in support of Los Angeles lawyer James J. Oppen, who was suing his local phone company over the loss of exchange names.

In the earliest days of telephony, exchange names were taken directly from the central switching offices, which were usually named after the neighbourhoods they served. When Bell was forced to expand from the two-letter, four-digit system to two-letters, five-digits starting in 1951, many of the original exchange names were lost. An example of this change can still be seen today in Parkdale, at Queen Automatic Laundries at Queen Street West and Dunn Avenue. On the painted sign over the door - the one with the "Coke dots" - the number is listed as KE-8903. On the slightly newer illuminated sign that hangs over the sidewalk, the number is LE 3-8903. That's because, in 1956, the KEnwood exchange was absorbed into the much larger LEnnox exchange.

While it's especially delightful to find a survivor documenting the changeover, I regret to say that finding any relics that have weathered the past 45 years is becoming increasingly difficult. I've found another LEnnox in Parkdale at Star Hair Stylists; at Bloor Street West and Spadina, the faded Simman's Jewellers sign whispers "WA 5-9441" to remind us that Annex folk were once considered a bunch of WAlnuts. On Queen West near Trinity Bellwoods Park, a torn remnant of a sign reading, ironically, "Remnants," features a very small "EM.3-0552." How many lips silently formed the word "Empire" while fingers absentmindedly traced tiny circles in their telephone dials back when that sign was new? Further east on Queen near Spadina, the Jacob's Hardware sign shows us how some frugal business owners adapted to the loss of exchange names: with stickers. I remember finding more examples in the Junction, Mount Dennis and Weston neighbourhoods as recently as five years ago, but a recent return to those areas was as unrewarding as a busy signal.

Easier than searching by foot, of course, is to use Google, which is how I found Montreal software developer Justin Bur, who has been interested in exchange names since he was "very small" but found it tough finding detailed information.

"I was always disappointed that nobody could tell me more about this," he recalls. "It didn't seem to be terribly important and it was mostly forgotten, so it just sat there for a long time in the back of my mind."

So, when he stumbled upon the Internet's "Telephone EXchange Name Project" a few years ago - which invites people to share their memories of their own exchange names - he decided to list the Toronto and Montreal exchange names on his own website, http://jbb.poslfit.com.

Looking at Mr. Bur's list, I see that my house would have been a PLymouth when new in 1961, and that my phone number today is still very much a PLymouth. Indeed, the more I explore neighbourhoods and compare the modern 10-digit numbers to the old exchange names, the more I realize most are still the same.

But even that's changing. With cell phones, it's now a fact of life that a 416 phone can call from 514 (Montreal) and you'd never know it. Some VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone services allow their customers to buy whatever area code they wish, such as Manhattan's 212, regardless of where they reside.

These new trends, Mr. Bur thinks, will be the final nail in the coffin of drawing local significance from phone numbers. "Number portability is the only thing that will destroy them," he concludes.

Goodbye, Grover.

Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Wednesdays during Toronto at Noon and Sunday mornings. Send inquiries to dave.leblanc@globeandmail.com.

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