Telephone Exchanges ~ NYC Nostalgia

When I was growing up in Manhattan, my very first phone number was LO4-4327. It’s funny to me that I still remember it after all these years. I wonder how many people remember their first phone number. I haven’t used it since I was 9 or 10. But, there it is, still in my head.

Erica Jong’s recent column on HuffPo is about nostalgia and New York telephone exchanges. Thus my ponderings on LO4 and Manhattan.

Many years after I left New York, I figured out that the first two letters of my number represented where I lived. Watching some old black and white movie made the connection because people requested the full names instead of the abbreviations when they spoke to operators. I long thought that LO4 meant Lower Manhattan or Lower West Side, neither of which made sense since I lived in Chelsea, which isn’t really lower anything. Incidentally, Chelsea was somewhat cool back then, but not nearly as chic as it is today.

My grandmother’s phone number began with a CH, which I knew most certainly meant Chelsea. My grandmother lived in Penn South, a housing co-op financed by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, who my grandmother worked for, by helping the garment workers with their retirement benefits.

After some hunting around, I found a nifty database of telephone exchanges. I learned that LO4 was LOngacre, midtown Manhattan. Longacre? What’s that? Well, Long Acre Square eventually became Times Square when the New York Times moved there in 1904.

This doesn’t make sense to me. Chelsea is not the same neighborhood as Times Square.

More searching.

Elliot Houses
Elliot Houses

I spent my early childhood in the Elliot Houses, which is public housing (i.e., The Projects) built in Chelsea in 1947. The Elliot Houses are next door to the Hudson Guild, which is a settlement house founded in 1895 by Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott. (For some reason, Elliot houses and John L. Elliott are spelled differently.) Elliott was a prominent reformer who was also active in the “Ethical Culture” movement (their philosophy is deed before creed), which is a fascinating idea.

Still nothing about the LO4 mystery.

Chelsea was once called The Tenderloin, which has nothing to do with Longacre or LO4.

Telephone exchanges are a fascinating part of our communications history, a cultural moment that has gone by the wayside. Apparently there was hue and cry conversion of exchanges to numbers, which shows us how people associated identities with their phone numbers. One person wrote in complaint (the date is unclear):

You could learn about a fella by knowing his exchange. A MOnument fella was up near 100th Street and West End Avenue. You could picture him coming downtown on the IRT, strolling first to 96th and Broadway for the newspapers, passing the Riviera and Riverside movie theaters (both gone). The ATwater girl was an East Side girl, a taxi-hailing girl, on her way to her job at Benton and Bowles. A CIrcle fella was a midtown fella, entering his CIrcle-7 Carnegie-area office with a sandwich from the Stage Deli. And what about a SPring-7 girl, twirling the ends of her long brown hair as she lay on her bed talking to you on te phone? A Greenwich Village girl. A 777 girl is nothing. She is invisible. She is without irony, seldom listens to music.

Although I haven’t figured out precisely what LO stood for, my rumination of my own childhood phone number certainly reflects a connectedness between location and identity tied up in a two-letter exchange.

4 Comments

  1. LO stood for Longacre if I remember. My number was LO4-4462 and I lived in 427 w 26th Elliott Projects.

  2. I was googling for photos of housing projects and found your blog! I too grew up in the Elliott Houses and see that JP also did. Small world. Would love to “talk” more about that with you. Send me an email!
    Charlotte

  3. Just realized my email won’t be shown. How can I contact you or you me without the world knowing our emails? (Assuming the world is reading your blog as well they should!)

  4. Author

    Well, I could email you…

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