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Book Review: 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 by Deirdre Mask

With The Address Book Deirdre Mask has written a fascinating book on what may seem to be a mundane topic. Think of your own address. It probably has a house number, and a street name. How could there be anything exciting about that?

Well, Mask shows there are interesting stories to be told about the origins of both house numbering and street names. There are also controversies and societal differences to be explored. And there are usages of addresses we in the modern world take for granted, but work to the detriment of others.

For example, to apply for almost any job you’ll need to provide an address when you fill out the application form. Homeless people looking to find employment face discrimination as a result, as they don’t have an address to provide. How can a homeless person get a job to work their way out of homelessness, when the first requirement is that they provide an address?

That example shows that simply having a street address is a mark of social status and privilege. In countries like India, which the author explores at length, large segments of the population don’t have street addresses and are trapped in a cycle of poverty and lack of access to government programs as a result. And, as in so many other areas of life, race plays a role in street naming and the availability of street addresses as well, both here in the US and abroad.

Numbering conventions are another interesting topic. In the US many cities use a system that places even address numbers on one side of the street and odd address numbers on the other. This system actually started in colonial Philadelphia as a result of the desire for order the founding Quakers brought with them. 

Mask looks back at the history of public health and explores the discovery of the source of cholera in 1800s London. Pioneering epidemiologist John Snow was able to map cholera cases and track the source of the disease to an infected public water tap. He was able to do this detective work in large part because London had street addresses by which the cholera cases could be tracked and mapped. 

Street addresses offer other benefits. They ensure that the ambulance or fire truck driver knows where they are going. They ensure that our mail and packages get to us on time. 

But street addresses didn’t start out as a scheme to benefit the individuals in society. They started out as a scheme to assist the government. Street addresses help governments take censuses and know where the draft age males live. Street addresses make it easier for governments to know where to go to apprehend crime suspects. The original street addressing efforts were seen by many citizens as government intrusions and signs of governmental control, and were protested as a result. 

The Address Book wanders through these topics and more, including the social perceptions that accompany street names. For many Americans, Martin Luther King Boulevard in their city or town is where you will find a preponderance of African Americans. Naming streets for significant or popular figures has a long history and can be controversial depending on the figure being honored by the street name.

Mask unpeels one aspect of street addresses after another. With The Address Book she takes us on a fun, informative and entertaining journey through the history and impacts of something that most of us don’t give a second thought. I learned a lot and had fun reading this book. Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.

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

Author: Dierdre Mask

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin (Macmillan US)

Publish Date: January 26, 2021

ISBN-13: 9781250134790

List Price: $17.99 (Trade Paperback as of 12/2021)