Back in 2018, Denverite profiled the guy who invented the “Native” stickers you spot on so many bumpers around the Centennial State. Eric Glade wasn’t even born in Colorado, but the transplanted Utahan was quick to capitalize on locals’ disdain for outsiders moving onto their turf. That scorn (and/or perhaps the associated feeling of superiority) was powerful enough to line Glade’s pockets with the cash he needed to throw what sounds like epic hot tub parties in the 1980s. The designation, it seemed, was very important to people. “Like it was a status symbol,” Glade once said.
To me—admittedly, a transplant—that so-called “native” Colorado pride has always seemed a little goofy. First of all, unless you’re Native American, you’re not native. Second, isn’t it strange to be smug about where you were born, something you had no control over? To steal a line from the writer, and my person shaman, Nora Ephron, “It’s like those people who brag because they’re tall.”
That question has been bouncing around in my head since last week, when Colorado rolled out a new Denver area code, 983. Because the state boasts enough local pride to make Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope blush, I expected the unveiling to stir some unrest among the citizenry. After all, 983 numbers will go to those who arrived last. Those three digits, in other words, will be an obvious dark mark of the transplant.
But so far, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission hasn’t registered one word of protest. “The call center checked for the past month,” says spokesperson Gail Conners, “and they haven’t heard anything.” Then it dawned on me: Transplants don’t care what their Denver area codes are. With cell phones these days, we rarely even bother to get local numbers when we move here from Texas or California. It’s those who were born and bred here who typically go wild over them. I scrolled through my contacts list to find out why.
“I’ve had the same number since high school,” says Zach Wolfel, vice president and publisher of 5280, a Denverite since birth, and the owner of a coveted 303. “I wouldn’t say it’s ‘important,’ but do I stay with AT&T’s crap service just so I can keep my number? Absolutely. I’m proud to have a 303 number, especially as time goes on and more transplants move in. So yeah, I guess it’s important to me.”
Daliah Singer, a former 5280 staffer and current freelance writer, a Canadian by birth, who also happens to be Wolfel’s wife, was less enthused when I asked what her 303 meant to her: “Never thought about it.” (Which makes you wonder whether she even deserves a 303.)
Despite Singer’s customary Canadian aloofness, transplants can become as possessive of their 303s as people who were born here. Graeme Nistler, who used to live down the street from me in Harvey Park, is from California. He moved to Colorado with his wife, who’s originally from the state, in 2006. When they first arrived, “My wife freaked out about getting a 720 area code,” Nistler says. “What if we get 720? What if we get 720? She was over the moon when we got 303.” Today, she still gets irate when she spots a Texas license plate in Denver—and so does Nistler. “I think I’ve learned that through osmosis.”
5280 editorial director Geoff Van Dyke moved to the Mile High City in 2007 from Miami. When he asked for a local number, AT&T offered a 720 prefix. “I specifically asked if they had a 303 number available,” he says. “I was born in California and lived in New York and Missouri and Florida, but I like how 303 looks. And I know 303 is the OG. That’s what you want.”
But while local pride is easy to recognize (and apparently co-opt), it’s a bit more difficult to define. When I asked Wolfel to explain what being a born-and-raised Denverite said about him—as in, actual personal traits he was gratified to have acquired by belonging to this place—he said he needed more time, perhaps the entire day, to compose his answer. I never received one.
So the question was bouncing through my mind this morning during my walk to the office—when the universe saw fit to put a woman wearing a “303” shirt directly in my path. As luck would have it, Carrie Hendricks, the wearer, is, in fact, originally from Colorado and has a 303 Denver area code, and she explained to me what that said about her and other Coloradans: “We’re friendly, adventurous, hard-working….”
Then her mother, Joyce Hendricks, jumped in. Joyce was born in Littleton and is old enough to remember when her phone number started with letters. Joyce looked at me—a known transplant—right in the eye. “I get what you’re asking,” Joyce said. “And I get why you don’t get it.”