What Street Names Say About UsBy Sarah Vowell
April 14, 2020
A review of THE ADDRESS BOOK: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power. By Deirdre Mask.Since the turn of this century, Portland, Ore., has changed the name of 39th Avenue to Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, Portland Boulevard to Rosa Parks Way and a stretch of Southwest Stark to Harvey Milk Street. Civil rights icons seem on brand for such a cartoonish lefty town.
Yet, having whiled away a premature midlife crisis in Portland at the end of the 1980s, back when it was nicknamed “Skinhead City” after a trio of young white supremacists murdered an Ethiopian student with a baseball bat, I remember why Front Avenue is still called Front. In the ’80s, when the city sent a survey to Front’s merchants and residents about renaming it after Martin Luther King Jr., more than 200 respondents vetoed the idea and only nine endorsed it. I’ll never forget the morning in April 1990 when downtown commuters did a collective double take at a prank perpetrated by artists who called themselves Group X. The tricksters had pasted over the Front Avenue street signs with impeccably silk-screened facsimiles labeled “Malcolm X St,” a tongue-in-cheek admonition of pleasant Portland’s ugly edge.
The city rebranded a different street as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, though not without bellyaching among the citizenry. As Deirdre Mask recalls in her chapter on streets named for King in “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power,” “dozens of people heckled outside the renaming ceremony.”
Mask, an American journalist who lives in London, pops in on historians, scientists, bureaucrats and various intriguing townspeople, guiding the reader across four continents and the Caribbean in her entertaining quest to trace the origins and implications of the names of the roads on which we reside. She careens through Nazi Germany, which changed the names of streets called “Jew,” and Tehran, where Winston Churchill Street was rechristened, to the British Embassy’s dismay, for the Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands. She notes that Tokyo has unnamed streets aplenty (a predicament for which my sister and I once invented the exclamation “JIC!” — Japan is confusing! — so as to not lose more time complaining on top of the hours wasted getting lost). This fact, Mask says, may have something to do with the structure of written Japanese, which emphasizes blocks of characters rather than (as in English) lines of letters. About Haiti, she wonders, “Could street addresses stop an epidemic?” — a question that’s becoming more interesting by the hour.
Tracking a Haitian cholera outbreak, she describes how a lack of street addresses can be a matter of life or death. She points out that “about 70 percent of the world is insufficiently mapped, including many cities with more than a million people.” Adding that these are usually the planet’s poorest places, she quotes a Brazilian scientist who studied snake venom and observed, “Where there are snakes, there are no statistics; and where there are statistics, there are no snakes.”
“Maps are how we organize our data,” the Canadian medical geographer Tom Koch, a leading expert on “disease mapping,” told Mask. Without charts inscribed with addresses, epidemiologists are hindered in making maps to contain epidemics. In February, Koch published an op-ed in The Toronto Globe and Mail, warning that since the advent of SARS in 2003, animal-to-human viruses are “fast evolving and we, alas, are not.”
Still, in one of her many hopeful encounters with problem solvers, Mask details how Ivan, a logistician who worked for Doctors Without Borders during the Sierra Leone Ebola outbreak, got involved with an international nonprofit called Missing Maps, which enlists volunteers around the world to chart the planet’s many unmapped areas from satellite images. “Missing Maps,” Mask declares, “had decided not to wait until the next crisis — they were going to map ahead of it.”
Structurally, narrative nonfiction tends to work either like a freight train (progressing in a straight line from Point A to Point B) or like a horseback rider (jumping fences to gallop across fields of unwieldy facts); count Mask among the horsy set. “The Address Book” is her first book, and she is already a master at shoehorning in fascinating yet barely germane detours just for kicks.
In a chapter on Vienna, she explains how Queen Maria Theresa, in an effort to draft more soldiers, ordered house numbers to be inscribed throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire “in a thick, black paint made from oil and boiled bones” and the homes’ occupants to be listed. She makes enthralling side trips into Mark Twain’s fondness for Berlin; mentions that a government program to resettle rural Tanzanians in planned villages “decimated agriculture in the country”; and, quoting the scholar James Scott, notes that China’s Qin Dynasty started assigning its subjects last names more than 2,000 years ago “for the purposes of taxation, forced labor and conscription.”
In the Vienna chapter, she reports that Philadelphia pioneered the innovation of “odd numbers on one side of a street, even numbers on the other,” even though she has a separate chapter on Philadelphia. It’s this insight, not the Austrian capital, that is her true destination: “Numbering is essentially dehumanizing.”
How can a book about class, poverty, disease, racism and the Holocaust be so encouraging? Mask populates her daunting inquiries with a cast of stirring meddlers whose curiosity, outrage and ambition inspire them to confront problems ignored by indifferent bureaucracies. There’s Benjamin, a disgruntled Floridian who keeps showing up at his City Council meetings railing against the streets in his historically black neighborhood still bearing the names of Confederates like Nathan Bedford Forrest. There’s Subhashis, an Indian social worker devoted to assigning street addresses in Kolkata’s slums so the inhabitants can apply for passports and open bank accounts that will allow them to “save money, borrow money or receive a state pension.” There’s Sarah, a law student appalled by witnessing a homeless woman get harried out of Starbucks during a blizzard, who goes on to advocate for barring prospective employers from demanding a job applicant’s home address (since homeless employment seekers don’t have one). And there is Chris, a London architect angling to bring social services to homeless people by assigning them addresses of empty buildings, because the National Health Service schedules doctor’s appointments by mail. This prompts Mask to point out that British children’s letters to Santa are “apparently (and disappointingly)” forwarded to Belfast. “If Santa can have a fake address why not the homeless?”
In a chapter mulling the meaning of the nearly 900 American streets named after Martin Luther King Jr., the protagonist is not King himself but rather an appealing St. Louis postal worker named Melvin White. White grew up on the forsaken Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and wondered whether it could flourish like nearby Delmar Boulevard, “and why shouldn’t he be the one to make it happen?” Founding a nonprofit called Beloved Streets of America — the funeral procession of neighboring Ferguson’s Michael Brown passed by his office — White drums up support to build a park and a hydroponic organic farm complete with employee housing on M.L.K. Drive.
As a geographer who studies the civil rights movement and public memory told Mask, “We have attached the name of one of the most famous civil rights leaders of our time to the streets that speak to the very need to continue the civil rights movement.” White’s mission expands the idea of what civil rights work might entail nowadays — more fund-raisers than fire hoses. And in telling the stories of boulevards named for world-famous overachievers, Mask is best down on the street, chatting up local heroes like him.