The Address Book

You probably don’t think about your street address very much. These days, I imagine you use it mainly to fill out forms or to tell online retailers where to deliver your packages.

In reality, your address is loaded with meaning and power. 

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power is a round-the-world tour examining the origins, uses, and meanings of street addresses.

The author is Deirdre Mask, a lawyer and writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Economist. The Address Book is her first book.

Cover of The Address Book

The Address Book
By Deirdre Mask
St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2020

The Privilege of Being Addressed

One of the main themes of The Address Book is the privileges that having an address brings. It might seem odd to think of a street address as some sort of privilege. Maybe that’s because most of us have always had one, so we take it for granted.

But, as Deirdre Mask points out, not everybody has an address. 

Obviously, homeless people don’t.

And there are many people who do have homes but not addresses. Their homes are just located in places that don’t have officially assigned street names and numbers, such as many Indian reservations or remote rural areas of the US. Likewise, there are millions of people living in slums and shantytowns all over the globe who are “unaddressed.”

Mask catalogs the consequences of not having a street address in various parts of the world. Here are some of them:

  • You can’t get a government ID card or a passport
  • You can’t access government services
  • You can’t register to vote
  • You can’t apply for jobs at many companies
  • You can’t get stuff delivered
  • Emergency services like fire and ambulance can’t find you.

Most importantly, Musk argues that an address brings inclusion in society, the ability to participate fully in civic life, to reach and be reached by community organizations and government agencies.

“… without an address, you are limited to communicating only with people who know you. And it’s often people who don’t know you who can most help you.”  [p. 30]

On the other hand, for some people, being reached by government agencies is a problem not a benefit. And it is true, as Mask shows, that societies often developed addressing systems to facilitate census taking, policing, taxation, and conscription.

Mask describes some new digital addressing schemes designed to provide addresses to the unaddressed. 

One of these is Google Plus Codes, which are based on latitude and longitude. Here, for example, is the Plus Code for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, aka The White House: VXX7+39. The Plus Code for 10 Downing Street, London is GVC3+9W.  Click the link to look up your own.

The problem with schemes like this, Mask says, is that while they allow people to be found and solve some of the problems of not having an address, they’re clearly not typical street addresses. They don’t convey anything like the sense of community, or history, or cachet that a regular street address does.

And that leads to the second main theme of The Address Book.

What Does Your Street Name Mean?

I found Mask’s exploration of the meanings of street names to be the most fascinating part of the book.

Historically, street names often described what you might find on them, like Church Street or Fishmonger Lane, or where they might take you, such as London Road.

More recently, streets names have become commemorative, named for important people or events, such as George Washington Blvd., or Independence Ave.

Ab, now here’s where things get tricky: who and what gets commemorated?

Mask tells how streets in the city of Hollywood, Florida that run through Black neighborhoods are still named for Confederate generals. It seems there’s just as much controversy about renaming these streets as there is about tearing down statues of those same generals.

According to Mask, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was reluctant to rename streets that honored Afrikaners to new names honoring heroes of the African National Congress. He feared alienating an important segment of South African society. Since his death, South African governments have been more aggressive about street renaming.

In cities and towns across Germany, there are a few hundred streets with longstanding names like Judenstraβe – Jew Street. That Nazis renamed them. After World War 2, the Germans changed them back.

Name changes, and the debates and frequent lawsuits accompanying them, are about the identity and history of a community, about which groups have power and respect, and which groups do not, about who gets commemorated and who gets erased. It’s inevitable that they are contested.

And of course, street names can also convey class and status.

In Manhattan, there’s a longstanding tradition of “bullshitting street names,” that is, giving buildings “vanity addresses” that are more prestigious than their actual physical addresses. In 1998, Donald Trump paid the city to rename his flashy new building at 15 Columbus Circle to 1 Central Park West.

The irony is that these vanity addresses sometimes lead to the same problems experienced by people who have no address; the fire department might have trouble finding you if your Fifth Avenue address is not actually located on Fifth Avenue.

Deirdre Mask narrates The Address Book with obvious enthusiasm. Each chapter focuses on a different city or country, drawing insights from the history and practices of each one.

My one complaint about the book is that it seems padded out with historical detail and biographical information that don’t add much to the points she’s trying to make. The Address Book is only 268 pages, but I think it could have been quite a bit shorter.

Well, maybe that’s just me being impatient. Other readers might be more interested in this background information.

Overall, The Address Book examines our humble and not-so-humble street addresses from multiple angles, revealing that we shouldn’t take them for granted at all.

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4 Responses to The Address Book

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Thank you for reminding me that I really need to read this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I felt the same way about this one! It included a lot of interesting facts, many of which you mentioned in your review, but it also included some extraneous stories that I’d already read about in other books and/or which weren’t directly on topic.

    Liked by 1 person

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