Take Note: "The Address Book" Author Deirdre Mask On The History & Importance Of Street Addresses

Mar 19, 2021

For most of us having a home address isn't something we think about much, but parts of the world and even parts of the United States don't have addresses.

For Take Note, we talked with Deirdre Mask, the author of "The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power." "The Address Book" is the Centre County Reads book for 2021. The book takes readers around the world -- to India, London, Philadelphia, South Africa, New York City and more -- to look at the importance of addresses.

Mask joins us from her home in London. She is originally from North Carolina. She's a Harvard trained lawyer and a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times The Atlantic, The Guardian, and more.

Here's our interview: 

Emily Reddy:
Deirdre Mask, thanks for joining us to talk about "The Address Book."

Deirdre Mask:
Thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted.

Emily Reddy:
So a lot of the people in the world who don't have addresses live in slums in different parts of the world. But you actually started looking into this phenomenon of address lessness in an adjoining state to Pennsylvania -- West Virginia. You went to a county that was largely unmapped, talked with a man there who was pushing to get an address. But first you had to find him. How did you do that? 

Deirdre Mask:
Exactly. I mean, I came across a sort of interesting fact that there are places in the US that don't have street addresses. And West Virginia at the time, this was a few years ago, it was going through a push to give all of the all of the streets names and houses numbers, sort of typical street addresses. And this is in a very sort of rural part of West Virginia, sort of coal country, as a lot of people identify it. But yes, exactly. People give their addresses through paragraphs. You know, it's, you know, turn right at the old radio station, or the school that burnt down 20 years ago, or the dumpster painted like a cow was one of my favorites. And so even when I was trying to find people I was interviewing, I even came at one point, I came across a man and I was asking him for directions. And he said, "Well, do you know where I live?" You know, and I said, "Well, I don't know where you live." Like he was trying to pivot directions around his own home to a stranger. And it's a, it was a very different way of navigating and seeing the world. And this push to give street addresses was actually primarily moded by 911 services, because people weren't getting ambulances and fire protection in the way they should have been if they had had easy ways of identifying where they live. But it was a story that revealed lots of complications about these ideas of addresses and sort of launched me on the rest of the book.

Emily Reddy:
What are some of the other benefits to having a street address?

Deirdre Mask:
Yeah, I mean, here in the US in particular, I mean, a lot of the benefits people were talking about, were the same things that we see, every day. You know, just getting your mail. I mean, that's hugely important. But around the world, actually, in places like slums, which I also wrote about, if you don't have a street address, you can't get a bank account. You can't receive private mail, which is actually you know, a huge part of the modern world, being able to receive, you know, mail directly to you and not piled up in a community center. You'll struggle to get a passport. You'll struggle to get identification cards, you know. All of these things are sort of, you know, essential tools for identity in this modern world. So when people don't have them, they'll struggle to do a lot of the things that we take for granted.

Emily Reddy:
And, you know, not everyone wants an address, what were some of the reasons that people gave you... a little easier to find you maybe. Maybe not everyone wants to be found?

Deirdre Mask:
Exactly. That was it. It was really interesting. When I was in West Virginia, I would come across, you know, I interviewed, lots of people. And I would come across people who didn't want an address. And I would ask the officials about this. And they would often dismiss this as "Oh, you know, those are just country, people who don't know the modern way," you know, they were "ignorant fools" or something like that. But actually, I realized that they were actually the really smart ones, because they realize that addresses change things. You know, that if you can find people easier, you can tax them more easily. And in fact, that's a huge benefit of street addresses, you know, if cities all over the world. That if you have street addresses, you can provide tax revenue. Police officers can also find you. And these were the same concerns that when street addresses first became common in Europe in say, the 18th Century, people rebelled for this very reason. That suddenly, their their privacy, their mask was being lifted because they were given a number on their door, where they be found more easily. Now we forget this because now we're so used to them, and we take advantage of all the benefits. I know during the pandemic, my packages have been piling up on my doorstep. So I'm very grateful for it. But it's more complicated than simply being able to find your way around. It was really designed for governments to find you.

Emily Reddy:
And I liked the you went to Vienna and looked at some of the numbers that were still on the doors, on the walls of the houses. And that was because Maria Teresa needed soldiers.

Deirdre Mask:
She needed soldiers. Exactly. It's quite pragmatic concerns. And this is how it happened around a lot of Europe, you know. For Maria Teresa she needed to draft soldiers, you know. And so she had centralized power, but she didn't have a lot of sort of local control over who was there. So ended up giving house numbers and conducting a kind of census to get soldiers. But you know, but it was also for other things, to quarter soldiers, for taxation income, some for telephone directories. You know, there were all sorts of reasons that they sort of started. We suddenly became wanting to find people and sort of an Enlightenment ideal. And this all started to happen around the 18th Century.

Emily Reddy:
I was surprised to read about how streets are often named... in West Virginia there's just a guy who is like coming up with hundreds and hundreds of names. They don't necessarily have any connection to the place. Although the guy you're talking to he did get the name that he liked. So maybe they did get some input. 

Deirdre Mask:
Exactly. Well I think they did have some input. But I think a lot of these roads, they were literally just, you know, combing old phone directories from, you know, larger cities or, or scouring their brains for every flower plant or tree they could come up with. But Allen Johnson, who I interview, who really was agitating for an address, he really wanted one to get his packages. He told the addresses that there used to be a lot of Stacys that lived on that road. And so they call it Stacy Hollow Road, I think he was quite pleased with because it was actually a name that had connection to us. And a lot of us do have deep connections with our street names.

Emily Reddy:
You actually talk about... you give a personal story of looking at a house that you actually ultimately decided not to buy in the London area. And at least a part of the reason you decided not to buy it is because it was on Black Boy Lane.

Deirdre Mask:
Yes. I mean, unbelieveably there's a road, actually quite quite a nice road, in an area of Tottenham, in London. It's called Black Boy, Black Boy Lane. And you know, it's a lovely road. And it was the house that was for sale and I went to see with the agent. I really liked it. I mean, there was a fireplace in every room. It was only two bedrooms, these are small houses. But the name of the street was Black Boy Lane. And I just kept thinking "Could I live on Black Boy Lane." And I actually spoke to some of the neighbors around right after I saw the house. And a lot of them thought it was just kind of funny or a conversation starter. And we really don't know how it got its name. I mean, some people say it wasn't, it wasn't named after anybody black in particular, that it was named after a king with very dark skin. We just don't know. But me, I'm African American, I'm Black. I just, living on Black Boy Lane, especially when the term "boy" and "Black boy" has these connotations of the Jim Crow South, you know, made me feel really uncomfortable. And we decided not to buy the house. And I could never pinpoint whether it was the street name. But I would have felt very uncomfortable using that as a marker of identification for myself.

Emily Reddy:

I could see that. And I thought it was interesting. It sounds like in England, especially, a lot of names developed over time. And often there was a connection to what was there. Church Street, Mill Lane, Station Road, you you say are the some of the most common names. And that can actually be handy for a visitor, you know, you sort of gives you an idea of what's where.

Deirdre Mask:
Exactly, and the way these names sort of naturally came out was exactly as you said. Things that were on the road, or the name of a family that lived there, you know, activities on the road. So for example, my UK publisher is on the the lovely street name of Cloth Fair, which I love. You know, it probably was some sort of cloth market at the time. It's also very useful in a time when people didn't have regular maps as well. You know, a stranger from out of town would know where to go to the market. Or they would know where to find the church. Or you could navigate around through street names.

Emily Reddy:
Although if these street addresses just happen organically or are left to private developers, as they were in the early 1800s in London, you end up with a lot of duplicates. You talked with a historian from that era who told you that in 1853, London had 25 Albert and 25 Victoria Streets 37 King and 27 Queen Streets. I mean, what kind of confusion does that lead to?

Deirdre Mask:
Oh, it's complete mass confusion. And there really wasn't a centralized body at that time organizing it. So what do people name after? You know they name after their children. Or they think, "Oh, yes, a nice name after the Queen would be good." Actually, there's a lot of New Streets, which is funny. They just, you have no imagination, you call street New Street, and everybody else is doing the same thing. So you have all these New Streets. So it was just absolute mass confusion. And it was only much later in London that they started to sort of iron this out. And of course, people got into great debates because they didn't want to strip their street of their name.

Emily Reddy:
And you talk about Rowland Hill who came along to fix up London street names. He's regarded as the founder of the modern postal system. You know, what does he do to fix London's street addresses?

Deirdre Mask:
Yeah, well, he I mean, he was interesting because he basically implemented this idea where the sender pays for mail. It used to be the person who received the mail would pay for the mail and this was a burden because by returning up at your door. And it was extremely expensive. So he came up with this cheap Penny post way of sending mail and there was a boom in mail. But the reason he sort of played some role in regulating street names is that because they were so much mail, so much delivery, he was sort of urging and begging city officials to clean up the street nomenclature, as they called it, to make it easier for our mail to get around. And so that contributed to changing some of these duplicate street names in the UK.

Emily Reddy:
I couldn't believe reading this. The London mail system became so good that you could do 12 different deliveries a day? You could send and receive back letters throughout the course of a day.

Deirdre Mask:
I mean, it was just this tremendous bureaucracy. I mean, they just really... and in fact, in London, now you can go to, for the time when people can travel again, there's a wonderful postal museum where you can take a ride in the mail rail, which is this underground railroad system that was used to transport mail and no longer used, around London and you can actually ride in it. I mean, it was just this incredible machinery at a time when people were just sort of desperate for news, desperate to share information, after basically having been you know, you know... if a brother moved to another town and you never had any money, then you know sending mail would have been a big deal for you because it would have been very expensive. So cheap mail really changed a lot in England.

Emily Reddy:
I was feeling a little nostalgic for traveling, reading your book, because you go so many different places.

Deirdre Mask:
Thanks. It was helpful that I had it done and dusted right before, you know literally just weeks before the COVID pandemic.

Emily Reddy:
If you're just joining us, you're listening to Take Note on WPSU. We're talking with Deirdre Mask, the author of "The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power." You mentioned this, you visited slums in Kolkata, India, where a group called Addressing the Unaddressed was helping give houses addresses. What obstacles did they face? They were trying to give addresses to 3 million people in the city's 5,000 slums. 

Deirdre Mask:
Yeah, I mean, at the challenge was huge. And I remember I first came across this charity, it happens to be an Irish charity, a really incredibly interesting, interesting one. But yeah, I really thought "Gosh, out of all the things people need, you know, why do they need addresses?" But for this very reason. So for example, the charity has come up with addresses that can be linked to bank accounts, so that people can get bank accounts for the first time, you know, and things like that. But yeah, there's lots of challenges. I mean, the slums, a lot of them don't look like they're anything sort of resembling streets, and that we're used to in terms of streets. So naming things didn't seem to make much sense, because the organization just looks so different from the kind of city that we're used to. And then also naming in general is fraught, as we know. So they use something called the GO code, which is sort of based on GPS coordinates, but slums change a lot. So then you have to go back and redo it, and then people, you know, move. So there's a lot that changes. So it became a really challenging task to do, but they did very well. And they've now been joined up with Google actually, who's helping. Google has something called Plus Codes now that they're, that they're using to help give people addresses there. So yeah, yeah, no, it wasn't a straightforward exercise.

Emily Reddy:
You talking about one of these... I mean, it just what is the house even? You talked about one, you know, a woman who wants an address, and she doesn't even have a roof over her, her little area.

Deirdre Mask:
And that brings up another point, there was... this was happening when I was in the slums with one... and this place had largely been addressed, but they would they sort of missed this one family. I think it was one of the for the poorer homes. You know, the slums, they're different. You know, they weren't like I imagine them, you know, they weren't all poverty and despair. I mean, there is a lot of poverty, extreme poverty there. But, you know, a lot of them are sort of sort of, you know, mixed different kinds of housing. But this was one that was truly, truly very poor. Not much of a roof, you know. Absolutely tiny for this family, and the woman was pregnant. And she really wanted an address. I remember thinking to myself, I mean, this is not a family who's really going to have much of a bank account. But you know, she wanted, but everybody else had. She wanted the inclusion of having the address as well. At least this is what I think, is what she wanted by by asking and going out of her way, that she wanted herself and her family acknowledged. 

One of the early conversations I had about this book was with a South African voting official, who told me that... he was black, South African, and that when he was growing up and a rural area, his cousin had an address and that he thought this was very glamorous. And I thought it was funny that he's used the word glamorous. You know, at first, it sort of seemed quite quirky, but then I saw what he meant. You know, meant that he was worth counting. It was quite glamorous that he had a place with a number on it. That was actually worth counting. So there's there's more to it than simply the pragmatic benefits of things like banking. There's this inclusion idea as well.

Emily Reddy:
You talk about how addresses can be used to track disease. A man in 19th Century England named John Snow, not the one from Game of Thrones. 

Deirdre Mask:
Not the Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, yeah.

Emily Reddy:
...solved cholera outbreak using addresses. Can you can you tell us a little bit about that?

Deirdre Mask:
Yeah, I was really intrigued by the story of John Snow. He was this really amazing man. He was sort of one of the world's first anesthesiologists. He had actually given anesthesia to the queen during childbirth. But he had actually grown up quite poor. And he basically became, in his spare time, sort of a disease detective, a cholera, early cholera detective. And at the time, there was no germ theory of disease. And so he basically had this hypothesis, that was correct, the cholera was spread through water. And when... he actually lived quite near this, yeah, basically, a slum where there was this cholera outbreak. And basically using using maps and using the street addresses, again this is making a long story short, but he was able to pinpoint where people were dying. And he was able to trace it to one particular pump. And then the handle of the pump in the story comes off, the epidemic ceases. It's more complicated than that. But, you know, in general, it's sort of a story of how we can use addresses and maps, to control disease. And it's a story we're all too familiar with now, as you see the maps and test and trace and finding people now that we're seeing during COVID. But what most intrigued me about this story was what John Snow did in Victorian London is actually impossible in many parts of the world now. They don't have maps. And so I spoke to this incredible man called Ivan Gayton, who, you know, had worked for Doctors Without Borders in Haiti after the earthquake and during their cholera epidemic, where a lot of the things that John Snow had like maps, they just simply didn't have them. They don't even have street addresses. But the mapping was just so bad. And he had also worked during the Ebola crisis in places like Sierra Leone, where he was just sending people out on motorcycles with no maps. And he actually founded this great charity, which I recommend people look up called Missing Maps, where it's basically designed to map in advance of a crisis. So you use satellite imagery, and you can just do it from home. You trace the roads, and then people on the ground will actually start to name them and put the maps together. But I was intrigued that something that England had had as a way of helping navigate their own disease crises, that made that possible, really isn't possible in so much of the world. So it's yet another reason why mapping and addressing is, you know, an important part of modern life.

Emily Reddy:
You mentioned the COVID epidemic, or pandemic. Is there anything about it that you thought, "Oh, if I were writing the book now, I would include that."

Deirdre Mask:
Oh, yeah, always. Yeah. And that maybe it's good I didn't, because I think I probably would have been shifting to all the obvious stuff that people talk about now. One thing that's really interesting to me about COVID is that we've become very used to this public health surveillance, you know? This idea that we really want to see everybody. We want to see diseases. It's what we're always trying to do. And I feel like surveillance is a bad word. It's a dirty word. It's a word that in general, in our lives, we see as being a bad thing. Nobody wants to be under surveillance, you know. But I think we're becoming more and more comfortable with this idea that we want to see people and track people. And I know, in the UK, for example, there's constant debates now over vaccine passports. And, you know, and being able to track people and trace people and see people in ways that seem a bit, you know, dystopian. So, you know, actually, one of my interests in COVID isn't necessarily just the mapping -- which is fascinating, because you do see now, you know, zip codes and legislation about lock downs -- but it's also about this idea of is our vision of surveillance going to change a bit and our willingness to be tracked and traced? 

Emily Reddy:
There's been a lot of controversy recently about whether to remove Confederate statues. In the south, there are more than 1,000 streets named after Confederate leaders. You know, what do the different sides of this fight over those street names, say, are the reasons to change or to keep them? 

Deirdre Mask:
Yeah, when I started looking into this... I mean, what I really found was, you know, the debate seemed to be about, you know, do we remove these Confederate street names or not? But what it really was, was about competing ideas or histories or memories, really, of what the Civil War was all about. So people who saw the Civil War, and this is my opinion, as a battle over slavery, really saw the Civil War generals as fighting for slavery. But there was also people who saw it as a state's rights thing, you know, there's a southern, you know, valor to it. They had ancestors into it. These debates become about much more than just what the name should be on the street.

Emily Reddy:
And there are nearly 900 streets named after Martin Luther King in the US. Household income around MLK streets is lower. You talked with the guy in St. Louis, Melvin White, who was trying to make that that city's MLK street better. There was a nearby  street that was bustling and hip and the MLK Street was was not doing well. I came away from this section kind of wondering, you know, are Martin Luther King streets put in bad areas, or is it the name itself that is somehow holding these areas back?

Deirdre Mask:
Yeah. It's hard to say. It's hard even to know how much they're being held back. But yeah, absolutely. I mean, the fight name... there's often a fight to name streets after Martin Luther King. And often they were placed in Black neighborhoods, you know, not placed in white neighborhoods, because they were seen as sort of honoring somebody Black. And these were huge battles that happened in new cities and towns all over America. And sometimes, actually, they were purposely put in poorer parts of neighborhoods to inspire the residents. I think a lot of people have heard the Chris Rock joke, basically, to paraphrase if you find yourself on an MLK street, run. And I was intrigued by this. And there's this man, Melvin White, in St. Louis. He's a former postal worker himself, trying to fight to change to say, "Why are MLK streets so bad?" and to and to make them better and to change them. Though I looked in the literature, I mean, it's a bit competing. And there's some interesting things there. And in fact, a lot of Martin Luther King Jr. Streets are in integrated areas or, or go through really expensive neighborhoods. Or where I'm from in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, it's a business district, you know, it's not at all a poorer part, or even, you know, strictly bBlack part of the city at all. It's, you know, one of the main roads. And so one study, I found, I found really interesting. It said, basically, that a lot of MLK streets, they're not economically worse, they're economically different. So they might have more churches on them, or more schools on them, because those are the white collar jobs that black people were allowed to do. You know, so there are fewer lawyers office and doctors offices. So I can't really answer this question, not having, you know, crunched all the numbers myself. But one thing I wondered, was that exact point like, do we think of them as bad? Because they really are what much worse? Or? Or do we associate MLK streets with Black streets? And because we tend to associate Black things as bad things, are we are we conflating these two things and seeing MLK streets as bad as "bad streets," in quotes. and I think there's a lot to unpack when you when you think about that.

Emily Reddy:
Hmm. Yeah. And our former President makes an appearance in your book from his real estate days. You have a section on how addresses can actually make a place seem classier, make it more valuable. Donald Trump built an apartment building at 15 Columbus Circle, but got the city to change the address to One Central Park West. I'd never heard of this, but apparently, in New York City, you can pay for a vanity address.

Deirdre Mask:
Absolutely, there's a whole system set up. And, I'm not sure exactly how Trump went about it, but there's a whole system set up in in New York, that's called Vanity Street Addresses where you can pay -- it's actually not even that much, I believe it's $11,000 or so -- you can pay to have your address, not actually the actual address... so you know, there's buildings that aren't on Park Avenue that have a Park Avenue address. Or sometimes it's the number they want "One" or something like that. And a lot of streets in New York actually the names were designed actually to sound expensive. I mean, Central Park West sounds expensive, because landlords got together and said, "We want an expensive street name." So you know, so it becomes sort of this, this complicated idea about class and street names and how we see how we see street names as signifiers of our class, our wealth, our status. And what's really interesting to me is that, you know, everybody would know when they came to your house that you weren't actually on Park Avenue. 

Emily Reddy:
Um, another group of people we've we've talked about the people who you know, who live in slums, but they're another group of people who just are homeless. And in the US, you talk about that being a big barrier to getting a job. Why is that? 

Deirdre Mask:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there's... it's interesting, because often these people who don't have addresses it should be an obvious thing, are the most marginalized people. And who's more marginalized in our society than homeless people? And it was interesting. There was a Yale law student, Sarah Golabek-Goldman, who's writing about homelessness. And she'd just ask people, "What do you need?" And of course, they needed all the things we say, you know, they needed shelter, they needed work, but one of the things they said, they said they needed an address. Because there's such discrimination against homelessness. And then on all job applications, they list an address. And then even if you use a shelter address, they're identifying you as homeless. And there's, you know, a lot of discrimination. And so a lot of them needed an address, basically, the pass as not being homeless. And also for other pragmatic reasons, you know, the same reasons that, you know, you see people in the slums in Kolkata. People need their mail. They need someplace to call their own. They need a way of correspondence. They need a way of registering... in the UK, for example, you register with your doctor, the National Health Service. You know, they ask for your addresses. It's the first question they ask. So you need ways of navigating the world. And an addresses is a big part of this. 

Emily Reddy:
And you talked with a couple of people with proposed solutions. One was just ban addresses on job apps. You know, like, we've seen that with the "ban the box" for criminal records.

Deirdre Mask:
Exactly. Yeah.

Emily Reddy:
But I thought this was a really interesting solution using the addresses of empty homes. You put that you're addresses a house that's empty. But then you do forwarding with the postal system. It doesn't seem like it should be legal, but...

Deirdre Mask:
It doesn't seem like it should work. But Chris Hildrey has designed this. It makes so much sense. I mean, the idea is that, you know, I think we've many of us have had the experience of moving to a new place, and we're having our mail forwarded from the old address. So at that point, two different people are using your address and neither of you are bothered by it. So he was using the same concept as a way for homeless people to use the addresses of empty homes. In fact, you could do it with homes people live in, but empty homes tend to be more palatable. And you have it forwarded to wherever you're staying at the time, maybe that's a shelter, or friend's home, your parents home. Some other place, you know, the place where you're working. But this would be some way of actually giving homeless people an address that they could use when they need it.

Emily Reddy:
You talked with a lot of people who are trying to find solutions. So that's for people, but for these places that don't have addresses, can you tell us about what3words and how that works?

Deirdre Mask:

What3words is this English company, though I think it's become quite international now, where basically they've mapped the entire world, I believe in three meter by three meter squares. But instead of giving them numbers, like GPS coordinates, they've assigned each of these three meter by three meter squares, words. Three words. Which are easier to remember than a string of numbers. So, you know, this three word address might be, I'm just looking around my room, you know, "glass, candle, vase." And then that would actually identify this one plot of land. And so it makes it very easy to pinpoint. And it's actually quite useful, especially for places that don't have street addresses. Not only you know, places, like of the places I mentioned, but you know, you want to meet a certain slide and the playground. You want people to come to your back door, rather than your front door, you can give that what3words address. And it's very clever. I mean, I do have issues with it, and that they're out to make money for this. So everything's very proprietary. And also the names, these three words don't relate to each other. So you know, your neighborhood's addresses, none of them are linked together. And so you're sort of like this isolated island. And I quite like the idea that our addresses in some way sort of tie us together as communities. 

Emily Reddy:
So you're not ready to jettison old addresses for this technological fix? 

Deirdre Mask:
No. And they claim they aren't either. They claim they aren't either. But no, no, no, I like I like addresses. I mean, obviously wrote this whole book about them. But no, I mean, it's interesting. You know, a lot of these... this would often come up because a lot of street names in particular, a lot of the stories in the book are about arguments over street names. These arguments, you know, make the point that they divide communities, but they also define ourselves as communities. You know, when else do we find ourselves arguing about things in local town councils about what the Civil War really meant? You know, I mean, these become sort of live debates about what our communities value and what's what's important and how we see the world. 

Emily Reddy:
Deirdre Mask, thanks for talking with us.

Deirdre Mask:
Thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted.

Emily Reddy:
Deirdre Mask is the author of "The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power." "The Address Book" is the Centre County Reads book for 2021. Mask will discuss her book at a virtual event on Tuesday evening at seven o'clock. Find the link to that event and find this and other Take Note interviews on our website a WPSU.org/TakeNote. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.