I had just crossed the highway encircling Kathmandu, dodging honking lorries and minivans decorated with plastic flowers. In front of me was an unpaved street leading down into the quarter just outside the city proper, beyond the boundary of the ring road. There were market stalls on the corner, chickens scratching and pecking, people walking past me. Somewhere down there lived my friend, who I was staying with. The problem was: I no longer remembered how to find her house.

I was used to having an address with me, on paper or sent to me in a text (this was eight years ago, and I wasn’t yet on WhatsApp). Then I would be able to find it on a map, or show it to someone and ask. But the district I had to go into now didn’t have addresses.

And I didn’t have a Nepalese sim card, so I had to borrow a phone from someone passing by and call my friend – “I’m next to the ring road, at the market” – and she came out and picked me up. This time, I paid close attention to the way we walked. I made a mental note to remember that if I passed the internet cafe, I had gone too far.

I couldn’t help thinking back to that situation when I recently read Deirdre Mask’s The Address Book, released in April this year, in which she explores the history and the political significance of addresses. For anyone who’s grown up on a street with a name, in a house that has a number like all the other houses in the street, an address is probably something you take for granted. And yet there are billions of people in the world who simply don’t have one.

How addresses exclude people

Mask is a journalist living in London, but she hails from the United States, where her book begins: in rural West Virginia, where the government has been working to introduce street names and house numbers in the countryside for decades. But not everyone who lives there wants one. We all know each other out here, they say. And why would we want to make ourselves findable by the police, the taxman, all those companies who want to sell you something?

In her introduction, Mask recalls what set her off exploring this topic. She was living in Ireland and wanted to send a birthday card to her father in North Carolina. She wondered how the postage costs would be divided between the two countries, so she ended up on the website of the United Nations platform for international postal service policy. That’s where she came across the initiative that’s trying

It’s the start of a journey that takes her around the world. Every chapter happens in a different place and introduces a curious cast of characters. There’s the London doctor who discovers the source of a cholera epidemic by charting the addresses of the afflicted on a map. And the NGO that is distributing addresses to people in Indian slums; without an address, none of them would be able to apply for a passport or open a bank account. 

Addresses are a way of organising the world – so they determine what people see

The book is quite dense, sometimes too much to read straight through, and it takes some doing to follow Mask’s argument through all the anecdotes. But she does make one important point clearly: because addresses are a way of organising the world, they determine what people see – and by the same token, what remains invisible. 

Mask discovers that it’s not so much a roof over their head that the homeless need the most; even more important is an address

Like when Mask describes the Yale student who’s interviewing homeless people in New Haven, Connecticut, home to the university. She discovers that it’s not so much a roof over their head that the homeless need the most; Without an address, a homeless person can’t apply for a job and can’t receive benefits. And without an income, they can’t get a place to live, so an address remains out of reach. 

Chris Hildrey, a Londoner, came up with an idea about how to break through this vicious circle: create a system to allow the homeless to use the addresses of vacant houses. Assign them an address that They could then have the postal service forward all their mail to a friend or acquaintance who does have a fixed address. No one would have to know that the homeless person doesn’t actually live at “their” address. Hildrey has now taken this idea

Street names as propaganda

Besides the way the system of addresses excludes people, When the socialist government came to power in East Germany, for example, they quickly renamed huge numbers of streets Almost as quickly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the united Germany changed the names back again.

These days, there is a lot of rethinking of street names that hearken back to the days of colonialism. In Berlin, activists have been working for 10 years to change the names of streets in the “African Quarter”, many of which bear the names of colonial warlords. In 2007, the Constitutional Court in South Africa was bitterly divided over a proposal to change 27 street names in the Pretoria city centre – names that were in Afrikaans or that were named after famous Afrikaners.

Mask is African-American, and she recalls the time when she and her husband went to view a house in Black Boy Street in London (spoiler alert: they didn’t buy it). This shows how easy it is to still find blatantly racist street names.

Then, there are street names that may not be racist in themselves but which become associated with racist stereotypes. In the United States, for example, streets named after Martin Luther King Jr tend to have a reputation for poverty and crime, because

Addresses as earning model

Finally, a street name might make you money or cost you money. Students in Australia discovered that houses with addresses on streets with ludicrous names like “Wanke Road” or “Beaver Street” sold for 20% less on average than those in nearby streets. And in some US cities, you can pay a project developer to change the address of your building to suggest that you might live somewhere else – say, Times Square.

According to the official guidelines of the city of New York, you can only do this But that’s not always reviewed particularly strictly. You can see that in a few places, like around Penn Station, where the numbers seem quite random, So in some places, addresses actually cause the exact kind of confusion that they are intended to resolve. 

The ‘addresses’ of the future: everything by GPS?

Mask also asks what the future of addresses might be. She describes the app a new system of geolocation that divides the world’s surface into squares measuring three metres by three metres. The makers of the app have assigned a name to each square, which is a unique combination of three words. Combined with GPS in your phone, you can see where you are and give your three-word coordinates to anyone trying to find you. It’s very handy for organising a picnic in the park, or if you need to get emergency services to a place inside a slum, for example.

Just like addresses, direct our observation. Think about it from your own experience: for myself, I can still see the market in Kathmandu, the chickens and the internet cafe vividly before my eyes, because I needed to observe them to find my way – there were no street names.

When you’re navigating by app, you don’t need to remember any streets or street names, or know where one neighbourhood is in relation to another. That might make you think that people who always get around by Google Maps train their memories less – and there’s scientific evidence that that’s exactly the case. 

It’s also worth noting that the names of two adjacent squares in what3words are completely unconnected. That means there’s no “African Quarter” or “Artists’ District”, where the streets are all named for the same kind of things, and no location commemorates persons or events from the past, so there’s no reason to change them.

Mask does wax nostalgic a little bit about how no one gives directions any more, and everyone gets around by GPS, though she acknowledges that these systems are very handy. I think that in the end, it doesn’t matter what system we use to find our way around the world.

What does matter is that we are aware that what we’re using is just a system, one that was chosen by people at some point, and that the choice might just as well have been different. And we should understand that in that system, there are things, events and people that are going to be kept invisible – and what to do about that.

Translated from the Dutch by Kyle Wohlmut.

Dig deeper

An image of men walking across a busy street, with tall buildings in the background. Why the name of your street is a sign of the times – and what to do about it What do we do with problematic street names, our commemorations of people that represent a rose-tinted, one-sided version of history? First we must understand them, then take inspiration from efforts around the world to tell untold stories. Read Elliot Ross’s article here If housing is a human right, why can’t everyone claim it? Housing is a basic human right, but homelessness is a lived reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Read Raksha Kumar’s article here