The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask

Read January 2021
Recommended for nerds and those who love names
 ★     ★     ★     ★


I love words and have noted plenty of irony in suburban addresses more than once (where are the oaks on Oak Trail?). So when I read a review of Mask’s book about addresses, I jumped at it. Mask takes a broad look at addresses, at the history and current issues relating to describing the places we live. Her introduction is essay-worthy of itself, giving a solid overview of where they come from and why we should care. She relates a story of visiting an address-less town in Appalachia and what it means in both concrete (directions to visitors, ambulances, property rights) and philosophical/political senses (after looking at a house on Black Boy Lane), as well as where the names come from once you create an address.

Mask is an engaging, accessible writer, and the early chapters flew by. After the introduction, the book is divided into five sections: Development, Origins, Politics, Race, and Class and Status. It’s followed by a hefty bibliography, for those who want to check references and be reassured she isn’t merely writing a light-weight interest story. Each section has at least a couple of essays exploring the topic, nominally written around an example city. 

Development looks at Kolkata and the problem of street addresses and slum transformation. “But the lack of addresses was depriving those living in the slums a chance to get out of them. Without an address, it’s nearly impossible to get a bank account. And without a bank account, you can’t save money, borrow money, or receive a state pension.” The second section looks at disease and addresses. In London in 1765 all houses were given numbers. When death certificates were done they had the address of the victim, which allowed Dr. John Snow tracing of a cholera epidemic. Brief discussion follows of the cholera epidemic in Haiti and how lack of addresses challenged pinpointing the source.

Under Origins section, ‘Rome: How did the ancient Romans navigate’ goes more into how addresses came about. Interestingly, despite being one of cultural touchpoints for government organization, the Romans, did not use addresses or street names. I found discussion of a MIT researcher in the 1950s talking about mental maps fascinating. Some cities are ‘highly imageable’ to our senses, which made them more memorable. She also relates a physiological study about how mental maps cause more of the hippocampus to fire, while using GPS/navigation causes less. There is some speculation here in this section, about how ancient Romans might have navigated, using the input from research. 

Also under Origins, ‘London: Where do street names come from,’ contains some of the details of how street names came about, both in common parlance and in development of the postal system. “House numbers were not invented to help you navigate the city or receive your mail, though they perform those two functions admirably. Instead they were designed to make you easier to tax, imprison, and police. House numbers exist not to help you find your way, but rather to help the government find you.” Part of the section also investigates how the recently created addresses helped a doctor track down a cholera outbreak. ‘Vienna: What can house numbers teach us about power’ continues the theme of government motivations, beginning with how giving house numbers in Vienna helped the ruler discover and track men of fighting age for conscription. This goes a little sideways into surnames as well, especially with government regulation with Native Americans and Jews in many countries. There was a French police officer, Guillauté, who created one of the first efforts at police Big Data by devising a mechanical file cabinet and tracking system for all French citizens in the 1750s.

‘Philadelphia’ is a more historical section, tracing the development of numbered streets in Manhattan and Philadelphia. ‘Korea and Japan: Must streets be named’ was intriguing in it’s philosophical bent. Try this concept on: “Instead of naming its streets, Tokyo numbers its blocks. Streets are simply the spaces between the blocks. And buildings in Tokyo are, for the most part, numbered not in geographical order, but according to when they were built.” Mind blown. Buildings connecting over time, instead of just location. Apparently, it comes from when the owners for each block had responsibility for government. She then segues into the theory of mental images and places, and connects Tokyo’s system to it’s most prevalent form of writing, Kanji, which is in ‘logograms–each character represents a word or idea.’ Children learn kanji by writing on grid-paper.

‘Politics’ examines address names in Iran and their connection to revolutionaries. The section on Berlin looks at how street names changed back and forth with politics: from pre-Nazi; to Nazi period, where any Jewish connected address was renamed; post-WWII when East and West Berlin got new street names again as the city tried to erase the past; and again, post-unification. One of the saddest commentaries came from an interviewee who had discovered she and her hairstylist were raised in the same city but had known the schools under different names: “We cannot talk about places that we have no common name for. Talking about cities, schools, and streets in East Germany, you have to translate between old, new, and very old.”

The last section, ‘Class and Status’ contains two essays. The first covers Manhattan and status connected to addresses, and developers’ push to buy a name. For instance, 1 Central Park West (developed by Trump) had asked the city to change it’s designated address from 15 Columbus Circle. It was, but somehow just a few years later, “Time Warner built a tower behind Trump’s, naming it One Central Park–even though its address was really 25 Columbus Circle.” The last is ‘Homelessness: How do you live without an address’ revisits some of the issues raised in the slums of India and what not having an address means. One English innovator suggested a mail forwarding system using the 200,000 houses in London that are empty six months of the year, or the 11k that have been unoccupied for over ten years. These two felt surprisingly light, more like specifically written magazine pieces, given how full earlier chapters were. But the quality is good–think The New Yorker. 

As with the introduction, she uses her conclusion to discuss other aspects of addresses, specifically about new efforts by Google and by smaller companies such as what3words to have a world-wide address systemwhat3words boggles my mind with it’s grid system and naming based on three words.

Overall, even the lighter pieces had me thinking. I found it a fascinating read examining the intersection of place and culture. 


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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