Street addresses are something most of us take for granted in this digital age, even though most forms still ask us where we live. For many, street addresses are a privilege. They are markers of wealth and poverty. They are also the first thing employers learn about a job candidate. Before reading The Address Book, I had little considered the significance of my street address. I knew that gentrification was a problem in Cleveland and Philadelphia (especially West Philly) but it never occurred to me that employers might discriminate against job candidates based on their street addresses or that people without street addresses might not be able to apply for a job. I didn’t know that there are regions of the United States where homeowners don’t have addresses.
In The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power, Deirdre Mask reveals how important street addresses are to our personal, social, and legal identities. Beginning in West Virginia, where hundreds of residents refuse to adopt street addresses, Mask explores the advantages and disadvantages of having a legal and traceable address. If some West Virginians fear the interference of the government in their neighborhoods, Indians living in the slums of Kolkota wish they had traceable addresses so that they could obtain government-issued IDs and register for social services. And then there’s the question of street names. What should communities do about streets named after Nazis or Confederate leaders? How do street names figure in the social visions of revolutionaries and totalitarian regimes?
For the past year, I have been living in Geneva, Switzerland, where streets are named after famous figures of Swiss history. There are streets named after Protestant Reformers, scientists, doctors, comic artists, and past mayors. In Paris, where the majority of streets are named after men, feminist activists have informally renamed street signs to better reflect the diversity of French history; the names of famous French women are scribbled over the official names.
Each chapter in The Address Book explores a different region of the world – Haiti, India, West Virginia, South Africa, Paris, Philadelphia, New York, Vienna, Germany, Japan, and Iran. Through a series of stories, Mask shows how street addresses and layout reflect the political concerns of those respective regions. She interviews activists who favor the changing of street names or work to give addresses to the homeless. Her writing is dynamic and personal. Mask does not hesitate to share her own personal views on a particular question, but only after she has given voice to the people directly involved in the politics of street addresses.
I flew through this book in a few sittings. If you are looking for a book that opens your eyes to the way people live around the world and has a strong voice, look no further than The Address Book. My only criticism is that chapters on a certain region were not always dedicated to that region. Paris, for example, features in several chapters despite those sections being about other nations. Perhaps, there should have been an earlier chapter dedicated to the influence of Paris on street addresses around the world.
The Address Book came out on April 14, but I read a review copy requested from NetGalley.
“Lots of people claim to want to go off grid forever, to seek out their own version of #vanlife. But the people Sarah interviewed desperately wanted to be on the grid with all that the grid entails: homes, bills, bank accounts – in essence, everything required for modern life.”
“We all have the need to confront the past, memorialize it, struggle with it, do something with it. That something often involves street names.”