The Address Book. What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power

The Address Book. What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power


Reviewed by Richard Harris

First Published:

07 Aug 2020, 3:38 am


The Address Book. What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power

New York: St Martin’s Press, 2020; 336 pp.: ISBN: 9781250134769, $26.99 (hbk)


Your address places you. It means people can easily find you, which is usually a good thing. It also gives you an identity, both official and social. That, too, is usually welcome, although not if you are a dissident or a stigmatised minority. Some researchers have weighed the pros and cons of addresses, showing how they have been created, won, imposed and circumvented. But The Address Book is the first popular work to explore these issues. Even to someone such as myself who has dabbled in the subject, it is instructive. But for anyone it is also fun.

The author, Deirdre Mask, has established herself as someone who can write intelligently for the general reader, having published in The Atlantic and The Guardian. Here, although she draws extensively on the work of urban researchers, she wears her scholarship lightly, enlivening her account through stories. Many of these are about her experiences travelling the world to speak with writers and activists on the subject. For example, she tells how, in Vienna, Anton Tantner, one of the leading historians of street addresses, took her to see some of the city’s original street numbers. Throughout, she makes various interesting and significant observations but always her first task is to engage our attention.

Mask, herself multi-ethnic, is alert to the cultural dimensions of her subject. The Address Book could be read as an extended illustration of the manner in which an Enlightenment Project was carried through in European and North American cities and beyond, into other cultural settings (Japan, Iran) including the colonial (Calcutta, Haiti, Korea, South Africa). But this theme is only hinted at. She has not organised the book to develop this, or indeed any single line of argument. Instead, the five sections contain 14 chapters that effectively dramatise several related points.

In the first section a pair of chapters introduce some of the ways in which addresses can be beneficial. In colonial Calcutta and modern Kolkata, apart from obvious navigational purposes, they promote security and enable civic identity through voter registration and access to government services. In Haiti – as in 19th-century London – they enabled physicians such as Dr Renaud Piarroux to track, and deal with, outbreaks of disease. (Here, inevitably, she includes a discussion of Dr Snow.) Written before the latest pandemic, the resonance is obvious.

Section two deals with origins. It opens with an account of how the Romans, for all their civic acumen, never systematised urban addresses, a task that was left to Vienna in the 18th century, and then London and Philadelphia in the 19th century. Vienna wished to tax, police, conscript and incidentally imprison; there, house numbers were created ‘not to help you find your way, but rather to help the government find you’ (92). Later, London (and other British cities) needed addresses to enable the penny post, while Philadelphia was especially systematic in establishing a grid that was easily laid out and that facilitated a market in land. To this day, however, some places (Japan, Korea) largely manage with a system that is organised in terms of blocks, not streets. Intriguingly, she speculates that this is because of the manner in which Japanese and Korean are written and read, with characters. Here, she suggests, locals ‘read their cities in blocks, not lines’ (139).

These early chapters touch on the politics of street naming and numbering, not least in the ways that it has been resisted. In the third section this subject is illustrated more directly by a pair of chapters on Iran/Northern Ireland and Germany. Both offer ample scope to explore the issue. She explores the question as to why Iran was so ready to name streets after Bobby Sands, an IRA revolutionary. It turns out that this symbolised their anger with the British government. Other countries, of course, have celebrated their own revolutionaries: apparently, Mexico City has 500 streets named after Emilio Zapata. Renaming is not necessarily permanent. During the 1930s in Germany many streets were renamed after prominent Nazis. In May 1945 the German communist party lobbied the new borough mayors of Berlin to change the name of 1795 of the city’s 10,000 streets, often in favour of leading communists (186). In West Berlin, however, the streets changed by the Nazis quietly reacquired their earlier names. This meant that some regained the original Jugengasse, denoting their stigmatised original residents. She reports the judgement of a documentary film maker: ‘the signs are disturbing, but taking them down would be even more disturbing’ (171).

The last two sections deal more explicitly with racialisation and class. In another chapter that eerily anticipates a current issue – this time, the worldwide demonstrations inspired by Black Lives Matter – Mask mentions controversial monuments and statues while focusing on the renaming of streets. She uses the example of Liberty, Florida, where, after many years of lobbying, Lee, Hood and Forrest became Liberty, Freedom and Hope. Meanwhile, she discusses the irony that many of the streets named after Martin Luther King are located in low-income ghettoes, dramatising the need for the kind of changes that King himself sought. Turning to South Africa, she discusses another type of irony. Afrikaans, once a symbol of power, is now under siege as, in reality, another minority language.

A final pair of chapters explore poles of class. Mask discusses how powerful people and companies have purchased a good address, even where their buildings face a different street. Addresses not only communicate wealth, vanity and profit but can be changed by them. (I need hardly say that she uses a well-known condo tower in New York as one illustration.) And, at the other extreme, she shows how one of the concomitant disadvantages of being homeless is that you lack an official identity, so important for work and social benefits. In this manner, implicitly we circle back to modern Kolkata.

I have reviewed The Address Book chapter by chapter because it points to the main strength, and also the main limitation, of the book. To any reader, the strength should be obvious. In each chapter, Mask draws us in: she knows and cares about her subject, she is a lively writer and she can often speak from experience. This is the sort of book that could be recommended to anyone – for example, a student who needs persuading that street names and numbers, and more generally the social geography of cities, are interesting subjects. The weakness emerges steadily, and most clearly in the conclusion, which briefly raises the naming question in the digital era. Beyond the general (and very plausible) claim that street addresses matter, there is no overall argument about whether, or more precisely under what circumstances, they are desirable – or not. We are shown many fascinating pieces, but it is partly up to us to construct the puzzle.

Why can’t more of us write books like this? To be sure, few of us could ever write as engagingly as Deirdre Mask. And it is true that The Address Book could benefit from the sort of explicit, sustained argument that we have been trained to value and to carry through. But we could do better, much better. Rigour is not incompatible with attractive prose, of the sort that would inspire students and potentially a wider readership. But we, as teachers, researchers and editors would first need to value it. Ah, there’s the rub.


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