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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Book Review: The Address Book: The Untold History of the Places Where We Live by Deirdre Mask

What does your street address say about you? For most of my adult life, especially with apartments, I've felt like I've had needlessly complicated addresses. My name is long and trying to also fit the address in the return-address part of an envelope has sometimes been very frustrating. It can also be difficult to get other people to understand and spell your address. When I first moved to Montclair, I lived on Claremont Ave. It's like Montclair--but the two parts of the word are reversed. And "Clair/Clare" is spelled differently. The address seemed simple at first but it was less fun as time went on. When I lived in NYC, Manhattanites found Queens confusing when I didn't think it was at all. Take the grid system and turn it 90 degrees. Then the first few digits before the hyphen are the closest cross street. So if I lived at 19-40 45th Street. I was on the block between 19th and 20th Ave. That made so much sense to me!

Having learned my way around 3 new cities as an adult, and now working in a dozen more as a field rep, I appreciate regular systems so much. But there are exceptions to every rule. In Queens, those exceptions mean that in addition to Streets and Avenues, there are Roads and Crescents. They also follow rules, but sometimes there are exceptions that have to be made. In my hometown of Nashville, when I worked at Vanderbilt, I usually would park on Lyle Street. Which doesn't seem strange at all except that it came after 25th Street. It went 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 25th, Lyle. Huh? Later when I worked at a B&N, we would constantly get phone calls from lost customers looking for the store. We always knew what the problem was. They were on Harding Lane. We were on Harding Road. Across town.

So who named all these streets? And do you think naming streets is probably pretty simple? (If so, you've never driven in Boston, shudder.) Would you be surprised to learn there are streets today, in America (mostly in West Virginia apparently), that aren't named at all? What happens when two towns merge and there are already two Beacon Streets? (If you're Boston, you keep them both and confound any outsiders! Most other towns try to come up with a better solution.)

Have you heard Chris Rock's joke about Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.? It's pretty funny. But when you think about it. it's also really sad. I love that in Chapel Hill, NC, MLK Blvd. isn't a bad street in a bad part of town. Heck, it's where the independent bookstore is, and nothing says fully gentrified like that! But Ms. Mask looks at efforts in St. Louis to improve the business district on MLK Blvd. and the stumbling blocks that keep arising.

Did you ever think that grid systems didn't just happen? And that they're a very American invention? And yet we hired a Frenchman to design Washington DC, where we have a combination of a grid system with wide boulevards and roundabouts. How did the advent of addresses relate to the cholera epidemic? And the Hapsburgs? How does Amazon find you if you don't have an address? Can giving everyone addresses help stop the epidemic of homelessness? If you have ever wondered about any of these things, wonder no more! This is the book of fascinating facts and micro history for you!

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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