Let it be known from the C&H sugar plant in Crockett to the Warm Springs BART station in Fremont. Spray confetti along San Pablo Avenue from Oakland to Richmond. The 510 area code just turned 30 years old.
“Today it’s official,” the Oakland Tribune front-page story read on Jan. 27, 1992. “The magic number is 510.”
Some may remember having to update their Rolodex by hand or toss out business cards and stationery. For others of a younger age or new to the Town, the history of the East Bay’s beloved area code is probably a mystery.
Related: Photos: Oakland’s ‘510 Day’ returns to Lake Merritt
The adoption of the three digits—that together say Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond—began out of necessity. But parting the West and East Bay phone lines helped newly define a region.
Emerging from SF’s shadow
In the late 1980s and early 90s, the population of the East Bay was “bursting at the seams,” reported Tribune reporter Kevin Fagan, now a longtime San Francisco Chronicle scribe. As a result, phone numbers using the 415 prefix were running thin.
“Since the Eastbay still booms while San Francisco is actually losing residents, it was the logical place to get the new area code,” a Pacific Bell spokesman told Fagan when he reported the story in late ‘91.
The switchover was historic: 510 was the Bay Area’s first new area code since 1959 when a post-World War II population explosion forced the creation of 408 for the San Jose region and 707 for Vallejo and points north. In 1984, Los Angeles added 818 after an area of the city previously using 213 was sliced due to population growth.
Some Oakland and East Bay residents had long wanted an identity that distinguished them from the city across the bay.
“Just as 408 tells people that a lot of exciting things are happening in the South Bay and 707 tells people that a lot of exciting things are happening in the North Bay, we can now be proud to know that folks will realize a significant contribution to the world-class action in this wonderful Bay Area is also happening in the EastBay region,” Berkeley resident Taylor Bancroft wrote to the Tribune in 1992.
Joe Murray of Oakland also wrote the paper. “Now thanks to the telephone, we get yet another reason to proclaim Oakland’s sense of inferiority and ‘ugly stepsister’ syndrome as we get ready to become area code 510. People are suddenly upset with what they see as another San Francisco victory … personally, I think it’s time to cut the cord. We’ve been in the shadow of S.F. long enough,” Murray wrote. “(510) OAK-LAND or (510) EAST BAY sound and feel pretty good. Let those folks across the bay have their old, worn-out number.”
The phone company, which is how folks referred to Pacific Bell, began the switchover in September 1991 but gave Bay Area residents a five-month grace period ending on Jan. 27, 1992, to get into the habit of dialing 510.
There’s a phone in everyone’s pocket these days but back then people weren’t as phone savvy. Telephone “experts” warned that if businesses did not reprogram office phone systems correctly, they could be charged for long-distance calls even when dialing locally.
“A lot of companies are going to get a nasty surprise if they don’t watch out,” the owner of a phone consulting firm told the Tribune. “The trouble is that phones are Greek to most people—nobody understands them. So they don’t know they have to switch over.”
Initially, the area code’s footprint was much larger than it is today and included cities in the outer East Bay. But in 1998, as cellphones became widespread, 510 was split. The East Bay Hills and Altamont Pass became a dividing line, with everything east—including Concord, Walnut Creek, Antioch, San Ramon, and the Tri-Valley—adopting their current 925 area code.
‘A sense of pride’
Oakland native Leon Sykes doesn’t remember a time when 510 was not Oakland’s area code. Sykes, an educator and media maker known by many in Oakland as “DNas,” was 6 years old at the time of its creation. He’s had his 510 number since his first cell phone and recalls being able to tell which areas of Oakland and Richmond people were from based on the three numbers after the area code.
Sykes is a co-founder of 510 Day, held every May 10 since 2016 to celebrate the town’s culture. “510 is everything to me,” Sykes said. “It brings a sense of pride.”
The area code has been memorialized in lyrics by East Bay rappers, including IAMSU and Mistah F.A.B. It’s been slapped on business names—such as 510 SkateShop in Berkeley and Root’d in the 510, a cannabis dispensary in Oakland. But these days, 510 numbers are no longer being issued due to a lack of availability. There just aren’t any left to give, according to a spokesperson with the California Public Utilities Commission.
That’s why in 2018, state regulators announced a new area code, 341, would be attached to all new numbers beginning in summer 2019. As Oaklandside reporter Natalie Orenstein wrote while working for Berkeleyside at that time, the move hit 510 loyalists hard and arrived at a moment of immense transition for the East Bay.
“341 is the gentrification area code,” Twitter user @_CAMIMANI posted in 2019.
Despite that sentiment, the reality is that 341 numbers are more likely to go to young locals who’ve come of cell phone age after 2019, and not to new arrivals who tend to hang on to their out-of-area numbers.
The North American Numbering Plan Administrator, an entity responsible for administering area codes, forecasts that the region will run out of 341 area code prefixes at the end of 2057.
The proliferation of cell phones and other factors are bringing about the exhaustion of other area codes: 628 was added as an overlay to 415 in 2015, and even rural areas are running out of prefixes. The NANPA has declared “final jeopardy” procedures—meaning they will begin rationing numbers—for 707 and 209, which are used along the northern California coast and Solano County, and in Stockton, respectively.
In Oakland, Sykes is counted among the loyalists who will never change their cell phone numbers.
“I don’t want to get another area code,” he said. “For me, it’s a symbol of the East Bay’s uniqueness.”