The Address Book

Humans have been living in cities for a really long time, but like so many things about the past, getting around cities used to be needlessly difficult. This is because there weren’t reliable signs, or even street addresses.

An address is something many people take for granted today, but they are in fact a fairly recent invention that has shaped our cities and taken on great political importance.

Deirdre Mask is the author of The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power, which looks at all the ways the world has changed since the popularization of street addresses during the Enlightenment. The book examines how addresses impact wealth and poverty, and how they serve as proxies for our most contentious debates. Mask also explores a digital future where we aren’t reliant on the numbers on our homes to tell us where we are or where we’re going.



Host Roman Mars spoke with Deirdre Mask, author of The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power. This episode was produced and edited by Chris Berube.

  1. emmor nile

    Interesting insights, thanks.
    In 2017 I was living in Ethiopia in a town of several hundred thousand people, not only were there no addresses, not even a single street had a name or sign. Navigation was based on landmarks or businesses the used to be in a neighborhood.
    The W3W proposal is deeply flawed in that it requires an internet connection and it is copyrighted. A much more practical approach is the Open Location Code format which is essentially latitude and longitude using base 20 letters and numbers. The system is open and well documented on Github and can be used without a network connection.
    Getting an address for someone can make a huge difference in their life.

    1. Adam

      Excellent point. Also, W3W seems, on the face of it, geared toward the English-speaking world. The idea put forward by the representative promoting W3W, that the words themselves are random, is therefore inaccurate, seeing as that the word pool is restricted.

      The one issue I thought that went undiscussed, is literacy and the use of addresses. Does the Open Language Code format also run into the problem of not being able to be used by people that are not able to read?

  2. Hal

    I live in the Seattle area, which uses lots of numbered streets. I’ve found I dislike that schema. Not only do I find it more difficult to remember than “named” streets, I find I round. 53rd Street becomes 50th in my head all too easily.

  3. I loved this story but was surprised how focused it was on just the street names. Because I think the house numbering systems are equally fascinating. While most of us in the US are used to evens on one side of the street and odds on the other the strategies can be challenged by later infill and neighborhood renewal. Unless your strategy is like Tokyo or other cities in Asia who issue street numbers chronologically instead of by proximity. Imagine the problems westerners have in Tokyo when #15 and #19 abut each other but #17 is 1 mile further down the street and on the other side.
    Or planning a trip to London to visit colleagues at the BBC who give the address as simply “Bush House” with no street name imagine trying to pick a nearby hotel in 1970 using a printed map with street names but no indication of where Bush House is. We rely so much on idioms that are common place where we grow up, and are never quite prepared for the surprise that these fundamental idioms mislead us when we travel. And then there are fictional street addresses you can’t find like 221B Baker St. or 28 Barbary Lane that tourists still go seeking…

  4. AR

    This episode reminded me of when I moved from Illinois to Texas. Picture it, high school history class. The question? Name Hispanic streets in our city. I had only been living in town for about a week and our neighborhood was newer and named after plants. Needless to say I failed participation and got a scolding for not knowing the area by teacher and student alike.

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