“Street names, I learned, are about identity, wealth, [and] race. But most of all they are about power — the power to name, the power to shape history, the power to decide who counts, who doesn’t, and why.” Deirdre Mask
Purchased from: Commonplace Books OKC // Completed on: June 15, 2020 // For: the Historian, the Intellectual, the Global Citizen, the Curious.
Okay. I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it, too. Can I really read an entire book about street addresses? Yes, you absolutely can (and should!) Here’s why.
Before reading this book, I had no idea that most households across the globe don’t have street addresses. According to Mask, “Today about 70% of the world is insufficiently mapped, including many cities with more than a million people.” “It’s no surprise,” she goes on to say, “that these places happen to be the poorest places on earth.”
Before reading this book I had also never stopped to consider the political and socioeconomic implications of being ‘addressless’. Mask’s book, which begins in the slums of Kolkata (where most people do not have addresses) and ends on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut (where homelessness is rampant) explains why street addresses matter so much. Not having an address often means not having access to schools, healthcare, bank accounts, food subsidies, voting rights, and so much more.
But Mask doesn’t just focus on the big-picture idea of addresslessness, important as it is. Instead, she writes a grand history of street addresses, a history than spans some 300 pages and that takes us from Haiti to Rome to Vienna to Florida, among many other destinations. In Haiti we learn about the relationship between addresses and public health (i.e., spatial epidemiology). In Rome we are asked to imagine how humans found their way around without street addresses, and to consider the relationship between place and memory. In London we learn that most early street names were practical, which is why today we can find English streets with names like “Church Street,” “Mill Lane,” and, most memorably, “Gropecunt Lane” (which would have indicated to the weary travel a brothel was nearby). I could write about what Mask teaches through Vienna, Philadelphia, Korea, Japan, Iran, Berlin, Florida, St. Louis, South Africa, and Manhattan — or you can read and find out for yourself.
In sum, I originally had no idea why a topic as (deceptively) simple as street addresses mattered enough to be the subject of a 300+ page book. As it turns out, though, addresses matter a great deal. This book covers a lot of historical ground, but delivers information in a way that feels more like a narrative than a textbook. It is rich in anecdotes and side-stories, and it is genuinely enjoyable to read. If any of what I’ve written so far sounds even remotely interesting to you, consider making The Address Book your next read. And don’t forget to shop from independent bookstores when you can!!!
In the book’s second chapter (Haiti: Could Street Addresses Stop an Epidemic?) Mask writes about Missing Maps, an organization that “enlists volunteers from all over the world to use satellite images from their homes to trace roads and buildings of unmapped places” (55). If you visit their website, you can make a donation, or (and this is the more fun option) you can actually start mapping. Digitally tracing streets and rivers and other natural landmarks from the comfort of your bedroom helps on-site volunteers to assign addresses to households, and these addresses help to lift their residents out of cyclical poverty. Addresses are also crucial when it comes to locating and containing the spread of disease outbreaks in certain regions. Tracing the spread of disease via addresses is especially pertinent right now, as we are in the midst of a global pandemic. By spending a few hours on Missing Maps, you can actually help respond to COVID-19 in a direct, tangible way.
“Some books are about how one small thing changed the world — the pencil or the toothpick, for example. This is not that kind of book. Instead, it is a complex story of how the Enlightenment project to name and number our streets has coincided with a revolution in how we lead our lives and how we shape our societies. We think of street addresses as purely functional and administrative tools, but they tell a grander narrative about how power has shifted and stretched over the centuries.” (14)
“The slums seemed to have more serious needs than addresses — sanitation, sources of clean water, healthcare, even roofs to protect them from the monsoon. But the lack of addresses was depriving those living in the slums a chance to get out of them.” (19)
“Perhaps the British could not understand the workings of the Indian city; more likely, they did not want to. Richard Harris and Robert Lewis, who painstakingly analyzed the records of colonial street numbering in Calcutta, suggested that for the British, India ‘did not simply resist comprehension; it was in principle unknowable.’ They refused to learn how Indians navigated their cities or to understand how the native Indians actually lived… If an address is an identity, the British simply did not care who its Indian subjects were.” (22)
“Inclusion is one of the secret weapons of street addresses.” (30)
“‘Without any trace of irony, the house number can be considered one of the most important innovations of the Age of Enlightenment, of that century obsessed, as it was, with order and classification.’ House numbers were not invented to help you navigate the city or receive your mail, though they perform these 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.” (91-2)
“The use of the address, the practice of attaching identity to residence, is a condition of modernity.” (101)
“Numbering is essentially dehumanizing. In the early days of house numbering, many felt their new house numbers denied them an essential dignity.” (104)
And finally, here’s the description from the book jacket, in case my description wasn’t good enough:
“When most people think about street addresses, if they think of them at all, it is in their capacity to ensure that the postman can deliver mail or a traveler won’t get lost. But street addresses were not invented to help you find your way; they were created to find you. The modern project to name and number our streets arose out of a revolution in how we live – a revolution that now means your address can often reveal your race or class. In this wide-ranging and remarkable book, Deirdre Mask explores the fate of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr., the wayfinding means of ancient Romans, and how Nazis haunt the streets of modern Germany. She also reveals what not having an address means for millions of people around the world, whether it’s in the slums of Kolkata or the parks of London. Filled with fascinating people and histories, The Address Book illuminates the often hidden stories behind street addresses, and their power to decide who counts, who doesn’t – and why.”