What’s in an Address?

By Cynthia Greenlee Jun 23, 2020

Deirdre Mask couldn’t bring herself to make an offer on the London house. The neighborhood had good schools. And it was diverse yet small enough that she felt she could drop in the local pub and get a “Cheers”-style welcome whenever she stopped by.

If only the house hadn’t been on Black Boy Lane. 

As an African-American expatriate from North Carolina, Mask couldn’t see herself living on that street, with that unfortunately direct and racial name. Her research yielded no definitive answer about the moniker’s origin; it may have harked back to the British Empire’s prosperous slave trading years. 

That anecdote is one of many in Mask’s recent release, “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power,” (St. Martin’s Press). She explores how addresses—a seemingly simple code of words and numbers—are more than geography. Mask hopscotches around the globe in the book, finding out how Indian slum-dwellers can get addresses even if their homes are little more than open-air cubes; how no one believed that a U.N. compound was the source of a post-earthquake cholera outbreak in Haiti; and why Martin Luther King boulevards have become contentious fixtures of U.S. cityscapes. Colorlines caught up with Mask, via Zoom, at her London home, and talked to her about what an address can say. 

Colorlines: How did you come to write a book about addresses, something seemingly so mundane we often don’t even talk about them? 

Deidre Mask: I just came across a statistic that actually was about the opposite, about not having an address in the developing world and what the Universal Postal Union and the World Bank were doing about it. Then I came across an article talking about West Virginia [where the state was assigning addresses to almost half a million locations that didn’t have them]. I wrote about that for The Atlantic and every time I kept reporting on about it, people kept telling me more interesting things. 

CL: Are there good numbers of how many people in the world don’t have addresses? 

DM: I’ve seen statistics that say 75 percent of the world doesn’t have reliable addresses, but I’m hesitant to say that myself. We can say huge parts of Africa, South America and India. The U.S. is harder to say because it depends on what you consider an address. Lots of people still have these rural route boxes. It’s not that people don’t have addresses. It’s that they don’t have reliable addresses. It’s many rural Americans or, as I wrote about last year at the time of elections, Native Americans who live on reservations and have P.O. boxes.

CL: So all addresses are not created equal. Is there any reason why P.O. boxes shouldn’t be accepted as “real” addresses?

DM:  P.O. boxes have long had a reputation for being associated with illegal activity. There’s some sense that an address really has to be the place where you live, not where you can just come in with little ID or no ID and collect mail. I don’t really put much credit in this idea. But obviously people were weaponizing this and using it as a way of denying people the right to vote. 

CL: One of the things that resonated with me was your chapter on the Martin Luther King streets, which proliferated after his death. Why was that so compelling to you?

DM: I liked the idea of using Martin Luther King Jr. streets and looking at their fate and reputation as a way of seeing how people saw Black America. A lot of Martin Luther King Jr. streets are struggling (take St. Louis, for example) and the majority are in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. But it came out that a lot of them are in prosperous areas and a lot of them don’t run through Black neighborhoods. But because of the reputation that anything Black is bad and that sort of Chris Rock joke perception [the comedian urged people stranded on an MLK Boulevard to “Run! Run! Run!”], we now just assume they’re in struggling neighborhoods. 

If you’ve been to my hometown of Chapel Hill, Airport Road was renamed after Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s quite a mixed-race and commercial area. The renaming was controversial when it happened [in 2004]. I read somewhere an analysis that compared the fortunes and makeup of Martin Luther King Jr. streets versus Main Streets and found that economically they were different, but [MLK streets] weren’t necessarily less prosperous. And in some cases, MLK streets were more prosperous. One thing that I kind of wish I’d written about more in this book is that there are more churches and more schools on Martin Luther King Jr. streets on average than on Main Streets. But that makes sense from a historical perspective because Black people were closed off from being lawyers and accountants, so the professional jobs became being ministers and teachers.  

CL: I didn’t realize how new addresses actually are. 

DM: It’s this idea of modernity. Before the Enlightenment [in the 17th to 19th centuries], you’d have a ruler who wasn’t really that concerned with what was actually going on. They sort of left it up to local leaders. Ancient Rome was even like this. But then for better or for worse, the state changed. They wanted to tax people more effectively. They wanted to draft people. They wanted to do things like quarantine people during plagues. They wanted to be able to find people. And numbering residences is one way to do it. Obviously, this has pros and cons to it. You know nothing’s neutral. It’s really hard to collect taxes if you don’t have addresses. It’s really hard to use public services [such as emergency medical care]. So, for some constituents, this is a good thing. But some people don’t particularly want to be found. 

CL: People don’t have to accept the ways authorities rename places, do they? You write briefly about how in San Francisco’s Chinatown of the 1940s, local residents had their own names for streets. Wentworth Place, for one, was also called the Street of Virtue and Harmony. 

DM: It goes to perspective, right? Who lives there, who doesn’t live there, what they see when they’re there, what they don’t see, the limits of language. But I quite liked this idea that we can have these parallel street names for people on the inside, people on the outside, people from different worlds. 

CL: In such a racially stratified and residentially segregated society like the U.S., what can an address say about your quality of life? 
rnDM: From a local level, you could probably think of the place where you grew up and map out lots of things about it—where certain races and ethnicities tend to live. If you’re from a certain street or neighborhoods in Dublin, you’re known to be poor. It’s not the actual number that matters in ZIP codes. … We tend to now use those as shorthand for different things. Wealth is a good example. You can look online and see lots of marketing firms that describe ZIP codes in different ways: This is a young entrepreneurial ZIP code, this one is older and wealthier, this is poor minorities. 

Insurance is a great example. You can be just over a county line, and it’s less expensive. If you’re over the other line, then it’s more less expensive because that’s seen as an area of higher criminality. It’s not necessarily the address itself that matters, but all of the ideas that we bring to it. We tend to take that information and make judgments. In my homelessness chapter, which is really about the pain of not having an address, people who use their shelter addresses find that people know it and make inaccurate assumptions about them, that they’re shiftless, lazy or a drug addict. 

CL: You also write about the volatile politics of other street renamings, from roads named after Confederate figures in this country to public places in post-apartheid South Africa. It seems like you found some similarities here. 

DM: There are people who didn’t want Confederate street names changed, who just said, “I had my babies on [Robert E.] Lee Street. My husband met me on Lee Street. It’s just always going to be Lee Street to me.” … That didn’t surprise me as an argument, and I thought that was a genuine thing to say. What I realized when people were talking and they would say things like, “This was my history and I’m not a racist,” is that people really believed they could hold onto [personal history without acknowledging the racist past] at the same time]. … But a history of the Civil War has been promulgated that allows people to believe this. I thought sometimes when people were talking across purposes like, ‘You’re racist.’ ‘I’m not a racist,’ it wasn’t that useful. Because what we were talking about was an understanding of this war that completely cracked America apart and made us think about what America was about. 

CL: The process of renaming streets has been equally but differently painful in South Africa, where conflict over changing street names in the capital Pretoria boiled over into a case in the nation’s highest court. 

DM: I was setting out to write that chapter a bit more like the West Virginia chapter in that huge parts of Black South Africa were not mapped whereas the white parts were mapped. But actually I started to find the Afrikaner standpoint the more interesting story to tell because you have Afrikaners who were undeniably the architects of apartheid. And when independence came, a lot of the street names were changed. 

When you talk to many Afrikaners, you get the sense that they’re asking: “Is everything [our] people did in the past bad?” They didn’t want their children to think that. A lot of people were saying streets should be changed because you should get Black people’s names on the streets, but also all these Afrikaners were bad and feel this is their country [and their country alone]. 

I always admired [former President Nelson] Mandela in a general way. But having written this, I just think he was just a complete miracle. He was very slow to change names. He was very quick to speak Afrikaans … and he was very quick to want to bring Afrikaners into the fold in a way that seemed impossible. Obviously, a lot of people criticize him now for this because it made the revolution less revolutionary. But his understanding was that [Afrikaners could not be] branded as completely evil or else they’d never be part of this new South Africa.

There are a lot of emotions to it. And I believe the names should be changed. But we’re talking about people’s sense of identity, self-worth, community and all of these complicated human emotions.

Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a North Carolina-based journalist and historian.