"What's in an Address?" by Sophie Stein
A review of the Centre County Reads 2021 selection.
From contact tracing to census taking, we’ve become keenly aware in recent months of the urgent need to locate one another. Dierdre Mask’s The Address Book (2020) investigates this locating phenomenon and explores all things addresses. Though no stranger to having multiple addresses herself (having grown up in the U.S. and now residing in London), it was not until Mask started, as she recounts, “accidentally” writing a book that she discovered how intriguing street addresses are. Mask examines everything from whom we name streets for and why to the use of GO code technology to organize Kolkata slums. Exploring the past, present, and speculating about the future, Mask crucially asks and artfully answers the question: what does an address reveal?
Inviting us into the world of street addresses, Mask infuses her own personality and experience as an African American lawyer, writer, and scholar in her historical analysis. Detailing field trips to Confederate battlegrounds in middle school, contemplating buying a house on “Black Boy Lane” in North London, and more, Mask helps us to realize just how intuitive navigation is and how, over time, humans have created some of the most unnatural and unjust addressing systems. While some addressing systems are born from the intent to control, others are born from the intent to improve society or simply make it more navigable. The Address Book brings forth just how deliberate the names and numbers we mindlessly plug into our Google Maps are on cultural, social, and political levels.
Leading readers through street addresses across the world, Mask often links seemingly unrelated cities, eras, and parts of the globe in each chapter. In one chapter, for instance, she connects mid-nineteenth-century London to contemporary Haiti. Relying not only on his accomplished medical education but also a sewer map, Doctor John Snow found the source of the 1854 city-wide cholera outbreak and became known as the father of epidemiology. After the 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, a model similar to Snow’s sewer mapping was used to locate the UN site that was poisoning residents in a nearby city. Mask connects early London to the present-day once more in a subsequent chapter, as she studies recent movements to rename hundreds of streets. As language has evolved, many street names that decorate London today are considered to be vulgar and inappropriate. Other movements fight to maintain the history of these offensive yet charmingly historical street names such as “Crotch Crescent” that are laugh-out-loud funny and too shocking to spoil.
As well as Mask traverses the interesting and lighthearted, she confronts head-on the
more serious implications of language and naming streets, including controversies surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.-streets across America and abroad, the persistent commemoration of “The Lost Cause” via Confederate street names in the American South, and antisemitic street-naming in Berlin. Used as a tool of propaganda in the twentieth century, street addresses in Germany were named after Nazi party leaders so as to keep their names on the tips of peoples’ tongues in the most mundane and casual act of giving directions. Significantly, the first mayors’ meeting after the war prioritized the discussion of street names over other social concerns such as infrastructure, deaths, diseases, or even the country-wide famine. Why was this, of all things, the primary concern?
For some, an address, a street name, or a location, is everything. New York City has understood this in a unique way for years, allowing bidders like Donald Trump, famously, to purchase addresses on storied streets such as Park Avenue as status symbols for locations that they do not actually reside in. Yet other Americans would rather do away with addressing altogether. Mask opens her book with the example of contemporary West Virginia residents who, like ancient Romans, provide directions in their towns based on topographical landmarks, such as corner stores, schools, churches, and oddly shaped trees. As Mask’s own first-hand experience with the locals reveals, the lack of addresses makes it near impossible for residents to be found efficiently, which is exactly how they like it. Ironically, this distaste for addresses and the desire for privacy cause the same issues for West Virginians as the obsession with a street name and status cause for New Yorkers: lost ambulances, fire trucks, and visitors.
Following the odd, sometimes dark, and yet undeniably fascinating histories of addressing, the book reflects on not only the injustices of addressing but also how people work to redress them. From stories of Parisians attempting to navigate Tokyo to how Northern Irish activist Bobby Sands came to have a street named after him in Iran, Mask does not have to convince readers to come along for the ride. Even as each chapter concentrates on a particular theme and city, they connect to one another and together weave a fun, fast, and authentic read. Between her accounts of routine coffee dates with researchers in London and of barely surviving a frantic motorcycle ride while on a research trip in Kolkata, Mask effortlessly shifts from city, to concept, and to culture in every chapter.
Before wrapping up a book that covers such a complex history, Mask brings addressing into the future. She invites us to consider that though some modes of addressing from the past, such as Philadelphia’s gridded streets, still work today, they may not always. Even modern projects to re-address the world will become archaic, unfashionable, and insufficient. If history and The Address Book show us anything, it is that addressing is more connected to our daily lives and our society’s values than we pay mind to. Though the beauty and power of addresses are that they blend seamlessly into the fabric of our everyday routines without us giving them a second thought, The Address Book is a gripping and powerful place for us to begin observing our world more closely.
Sophie Stein is a Penn State student and an intern for the Center for American Literary Studies.
Centre County Reads Madness
Which past read was your favorite?
Here's your chance to let us know what you thought of our past Centre County Reads selections. This year we're hosting a CCR Madness tournament. Each Monday, we will put up a link to vote for the books in the bracket until Sunday evening.
Who do you think will be crowned champion?
Winner: Vulture by Katie Fallon