Addressing Addresses

Deirdre Mask, I would wager, is an outstanding dinner companion, the kind of person you’d like to have sit next to you on a delayed airplane flight. I’ve never met her, so this may be idle conjecture. If you dip into her recent first book, though, I would be surprised if you thought otherwise.

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power is Mask’s 2020 effort, a wide-ranging and curiosity driven examination of the street address. Mask’s opening fact – more than 40% of all laws passed by the New York City Council in some years are about renaming places – resonates with our ongoing news cycle of renamed streets, parks and schools – and the protests that accompany them. It is also a good way to reel in a skeptical reader. Mask recounts her initial forays into the humble street address, tracking down a person to interview in rural West Virginia who doesn’t have a traditional house number and road, and comes to realize that act of naming and addressing space connotes and conveys a great deal about a community, its history, and the power of the state. What she discovers through the course of her research and writing the book is both obvious and surprising. It is everyday history – important history – that is often hidden in plain sight.

Mask, who currently lives in London, balances here attention between modern cities (Kolkata, Rome, Vienna, Philadelphia, Berlin, London and New York) and the historical, the out-of-the-way, and the idiosyncratic. She asks questions pertinent to her quest, such as “How street addresses affect public health?” and “What do Martin Luther King Jr. Streets Reveal About Race in America?” Her peregrinations in the service of those queries drive the book’s structure. We learn, with Mask, the street addresses are essential to modern life. They matter much more than mail, though mail delivery was often a key factor in their adoption. An address is how government recognizes citizens, counts and assesses effort and need, and delivers services. Homelessness is more than not having a place to live; it is about the lack of an address.

The lessons of history around the globe reinforce Mask’s focus on names, from London’s renaming of streets to make them more respectable, to the renaming of streets for political ends in Paris, Iran, and Berlin. Mask’s insights into race and the manifestation of state power are especially insightful. Names and address can send messages of inclusion or exclusion. The section on South African before and after apartheid was particularly interesting, as Mandela was extraordinarily deliberate in where and when he pushed for change and where he endorsed the status quo. And circling back to New York City, she offers a short lesson Manhattan real estate and the power of the “right” address to command top dollar.

Neither pedantic nor scholarly, The Address Book is carefully researched and reasoned. It raises important questions about power and place, giving the reader a provocative lens to rethink the day to day. As Mask reflects, thinking about looking at houses in London, could she “really live on Black Boy Lane?” What does that say about place and community?

Along those lines, one of my key takeaways from Mask’s book is that there is surprising power in naming and placing, and that this extends well beyond physical addresses. As an educator, I wonder where a book like The Address Book might find a home, or address, in academia? It is expansive and the sort of work that embodies an informed college-educated perspective on modern society. An interdisciplinary exploration, The Address Book is interesting, relevant, and well-deserving a home on many shelves.

David Potash

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