More than just a number: what street addresses say about you

On the surface it might seem like an almost bureaucratic detail - a piece of information that helps the government to find you … when it’s time to pay your taxes. But your address can mean a lot more.. Deirdre Mask explores the link between where you are - and who in her book The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.

From convenience to control, author explores the power of an address

The collection of distinctive London Street signs, designed by Sir Misha Black in 1967, are being auctioned on behalf of Westminster City Council, and the sale catalogue includes signs for Abbey Road, Pimlico Road and Westbourne Park Road. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP) (AP)

Originally aired January 24, 2021

When Deirdre Mask went house hunting on a street called Black Boy Lane, it was not lost on her that her interest in addresses was playing out in a personal way.

"I'm African-American, and I just had this idea of, you know, 'could I really live on a street called Blackboy Lane?' said Mask in an interview with Tapestry host, Mary Hynes.

"It really does make you think: 'What do street names mean? And what do they say about us?'", said Mask. 

Deirdre Mask (Submitted by Deirdre Mask)

Originally from North Carolina, she currently lives in London, United Kingdom. Mask is the author of The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power. In the book, she explores the origin of our desire to map out where we live and the implications of things like the street names themselves, which early on were often named for the happenings on a street.

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power is published by St. Martin’s Press. (St. Martin’s Press)

"You can almost track the history of London, and it's quite exciting to see Market Street or Church Street...that gives you an idea of what was going on. But gradually that kind of changed, and became a time in which we became commemorative people, and we start storing our ideas and values in street names, which is why we also get street names that we now choose very specifically for a certain purpose," said Mask.

In her book, Mask gives the example of a divisive debate in Hollywood, Florida, over three streets named after Confederate commanders -- John Bell Hood, Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest. 

Mask said that while she understands the nostalgia for the name of the street you grew up on, it can get complicated once you look at its true origin. For example, once you realize that "Forrest Street" is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest - the man who allegedly founded the Ku Klux Klan, there is no escaping the weight of the word. 

"A street name, unlike almost anything else, you actually have to use it. You can't really boycott your address in quite the same way. It's too useful a function," said Mask.

The debate over street names in Hollywood, Florida went on for years before they were re-named Hope, Liberty and Freedom streets. While it was divisive, Mask says there is power in the process.

"These arguments, they divide these communities, you know, because we have these really heated battles over it. But they also create communities: They create this forum  that we can actually talk about these things and talk about what the civil war meant in a really meaningful way," she said.

An address as a way of being counted

A name itself is but one way Mask argues that an address can impact a person's life. 

Today our address is really literally our identity- Deirdre Mask

She told Tapestry Host, Mary Hynes, that there are implications for our understanding of power and privilege the deeper you look into why addresses were needed in the first place. While she notes the convenience of the creation of addresses, early motivations were also about state control. 

"It's really for the state to be able to track us and tax us and imprison us and find us...for better or for worse, and now (in) the days of COVID, to quarantine us and to regulate where we go," she said.

Through contemporary examples of managing COVID-19 and other epidemics, Mask acknowledges the benefit of addresses in tracking populations most impacted by disease and providing public health with contact tracing details. It's one of the important and practical sides of an address.

But having an address can also be deeply meaningful in terms of how we see ourselves and how others see us.

"Today our address is really literally our identity. When you go to sign up for a bank account or get a driver's license, they want your address...It's the way that you prove you are who you are," she said.

But Mask goes on to say that through her research in certain slums of Kolkata, India, the desire for an address among some of the country's most impoverished and marginalized seemed less about any plans to buy a car or open a bank account and more about being acknowledged.

"Having a number, it shows that you count, shows that you're included, shows that you're part of the fabric, shows that you matter. Somebody actually wants to find you," she said.

If you're looking for Mask, you can find her on a street in London that she says feels much more in line with her own sense of identity. She and her family did not end purchasing the home on Black Boy Lane. Instead, they moved to a street named after the British politician, William Wilberforce.

"The flat we ended up buying, where I'm sitting right now in quarantine as we've been all year, is on a street called Wilberforce Road, which was delightful because, of course, William Wilberforce is known in the UK for leading the abolishment of the slave trade in the UK." 


Written by Kim Kaschor, Produced by Arman Aghbali, Kim Kaschor and Rosie Fernandez



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?