The long read: Without a street address you have no access to credit or bank accounts, a pension or voting rights. But large parts of the worlds population still live off the map
In some years, more than 40% of all local laws passed by the New York City council have been street name changes. Let me give you a moment to think about that. The city council is congress to the mayors president. Its 51 members monitor the countrys largest school system and police force, and decide land use for one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Its budget is larger than most states, its population bigger than all but 11 states. On top of that, New Yorks streets have largely been named or numbered since the 19th century, with some street names, such as Stuyvesant and the Bowery, dating from when Manhattan was little more than a Dutch trading station.
And yet, Ill say it again: in some years, more than 40% of all local laws passed by the New York City council have been street name changes.
The city council often focuses on honorary street names layered on top of the regular map. So when you walk through the city, you may look up and see that while you are on West 103rd Street, you are also on Humphrey Bogart Place. Or you might be on Broadway and West 65th Street (Leonard Bernstein Place), West 84th (Edgar Allan Poe Street), or East 43rd (David Ben-Gurion Place). Recently, the city council approved the Wu-Tang Clan District in Staten Island, Christopher Wallace Way (after the Notorious BIG.) in Brooklyn and Ramones Way in Queens. The city council co-named 164 streets in 2018 alone.
But in 2007, when the city council rejected a proposal to rename a street for Sonny Carson, a militant black activist, demonstrators took to the streets. Carson had formed the Black Mens Movement Against Crack, organised marches against police brutality and pushed for community control of schools. But he also advocated violence and espoused unapologetically racist ideas. When a Haitian woman accused a Korean shop owner of assault, Carson organised a boycott of all Korean grocery stores, where protesters urged black people not to give their money to people who dont look like us. Asked if he was antisemitic, Carson responded that he was antiwhite. Dont limit my antis to just one group of people. The mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, said: Theres probably nobody whose name I can come up with who less should have a street named after him in this city than Sonny Carson.
But supporters of the naming proposal argued that Carson vigorously organised his Brooklyn community long before anyone cared about Brooklyn. Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, said that Carson, a Korean war veteran, closed more crack houses than the New York police department. Dont judge his life on his most provocative statements, his supporters asked. Still, Carson was controversial in the African American community as well. When the black councilman Leroy Comrie abstained from the street name vote, Barrons aide Viola Plummer suggested that his political career was over, even if it took an assassination. Comrie was assigned police protection. (Plummer insists she meant a career assassination rather than a literal one.)
When the council finally refused the Carson-naming proposal (while accepting designations for the Law & Order actor Jerry Orbach and the choreographer Alvin Ailey), a few hundred Brooklyn residents flooded into Bedford-Stuyvesant and put up their own Sonny Abubadika Carson Avenue sign on Gates Avenue. Barron pointed out that New York had long honoured flawed men, including Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owning paedophile. We might go street-name-changing crazy around here to get rid of the names of these slave owners, he called out to the angry crowd.
Why are leaders of the community spending time worrying about the naming of a street? Theodore Miraldi of the Bronx wrote to the New York Post. Excellent question, Mr Miraldi. Why do we care this much about any street name at all?
My street address obsession began when I learned for the first time that most households in the world dont have street addresses. Addresses, the Universal Postal Union argues, are one of the cheapest ways to lift people out of poverty, facilitating access to credit, voting rights and worldwide markets. But this is not just a problem in the developing world. I learned that even parts of the rural US dont have street addresses.
West Virginia has tackled a decades-long project to name and number its streets. Until 1991, few people outside of West Virginias small cities had any street address at all. Then the state caught Verizon inflating its rates and, as part of an unusual settlement, the company agreed to pay $15m (12.4m) to, quite literally, put West Virginians on the map.
For generations, people had navigated West Virginia in creative ways. Directions are delivered in paragraphs. Look for the white church, the stone church, the brick church, the old elementary school, the old post office, the old sewing factory, the wide turn, the big mural, the tattoo parlour, the drive-in restaurant, the dumpster painted like a cow, the pickup truck in the middle of the field. But, of course, if you live here, you probably dont need directions; along the dirt lanes that wind through valleys and dry riverbeds, everyone knows everyone else anyway.
Emergency services have rallied for more formal ways of finding people. Close your eyes and try to explain where your house is without using your address. Now try it again, but this time pretend youre having a stroke. Paramedics rushed to a house in West Virginia described as having chickens out front, only to see that every house had chickens out front. Along those lanes, I was told, people come out on their porches and wave at strangers, so paramedics couldnt tell who was being friendly and who was flagging them down. Ron Serino, a firefighter in Northfork (population 429) explained how he would tell frantic callers to listen for the blare of the trucks siren. A game of hide-and-seek would then wind its way through the serpentine hollows. Getting hotter? he would ask over the phone. Getting closer?
Many streets in rural West Virginia have rural route numbers assigned by the post office, but those numbers arent on any map. As one 911 official has said: We dont know where that stuff is at.
Naming one street is hardly a challenge, but how do you go about naming thousands? When I met him, Nick Keller was the soft-spoken addressing coordinator for McDowell County. His office had initially hired a contractor in Vermont to do the addressing, but that effort collapsed and the company left behind hundreds of yellow slips of paper assigning addresses that Keller couldnt connect to actual houses. (I heard that West Virginia residents, with coal as their primary livelihood, wouldnt answer a call from a Vermont area code, fearing environmentalists.)
Many people in West Virginia really didnt want addresses. Sometimes, they just didnt like their new street name. (A farmer in neighboring Virginia was enraged after his street was named after the banker who denied his grandfather a loan in the Depression.) But often its not the particular name, but the naming itself. Everyone knows everyone else, the protesters said again and again. When a 33-year-old man died of an asthma attack after the ambulance got lost, his mother told the newspaper: All they had to do was stop and ask somebody where we lived. (Her directions to outsiders? Coopers ball field, first road on the left, take a sharp right hand turn up the mountain.)
But as Keller told me: Youd be surprised at how many people dont know you at three in the morning. A paramedic who turns up at the wrong house in the middle of the night might be met with a pistol in the face. One 911 official told me how she tried to talk up the project with McDowell Countys elderly community, a growing percentage of the population now that young people are moving to places with more work. Some people say: I dont want an address, she told me. I say: What if you need an ambulance? Their answer? We dont need ambulances. We take care of ourselves.
Addressing isnt for sissies, an addressing coordinator once told a national convention. Employees sent out to name the streets in West Virginia have been greeted by men with four-wheelers and shotguns. One city employee came across a man with a machete stuck in his back pocket. How bad did he need that address?
Some people I spoke to saw the areas lack of addresses as emblematic of a backward rural community, but I didnt see it that way. McDowell County struggles as one of the poorest counties in the country, but its a tight-knit community, where residents know both their neighbours and the rich history of their land. They see things outsiders dont see. I, on the other hand, now use GPS to navigate the town I grew up in. I wondered whether we might see our spaces differently if we didnt have addresses. And far from being outlandish, the residents fears turn out to be justifiable, even reasonable. Addresses arent just for emergency services. They also exist so people can find you, police you, tax you and try to sell you things you dont need through the mail.
Street addresses tell a complex story of how the grand Enlightenment project to name and number our streets coincided with a revolution in how we lead our lives and how we shape our societies. And rather than just a mere administrative detail, street names are about identity, wealth and, as in the Sonny Carson street example, race. But most of all they are about power the power to name, the power to shape history, the power to decide who counts, who doesnt, and why.
Today, rural West Virginians at last have organised street addresses. But what about the billions around the world who do not?
Subhashis Nath is a social worker and senior manager for Addressing the Unaddressed, an NGO with the sole mission to give street addresses to every slum in India, starting in Kolkata. On a sunny February day, I went with him to Chetla, an old slum squeezed in between a canal and a railroad. In some ways, I found Chetla a bit of a relief from the centre of the city. The slum is densely packed, but perhaps because its residents have often come from villages, it felt oddly rural.
The slums seemed to have more serious needs than addresses sanitation, clean water, healthcare, even roofs to protect them from the monsoon. But the lack of addresses was depriving those living in the slums a chance to get out of them.
Without an address, its nearly impossible to get a bank account. And without a bank account, you cant save money, borrow money or receive a state pension. Scandals had exposed moneylenders and scam banks operating throughout Kolkatas slums, with some residents reportedly killing themselves after losing their life savings to a crook. With their new addresses, more residents of Chetla can now have ATM cards.
Slum is an umbrella term for a wide range of settlements. Most slums, arising along canals, roadsides, or vacant land are illegal the inhabitants are squatters, living without permission on someone elses land. Others are bustees, or legal slums, often with higher-quality housing, where the tenants lease their land.
Still, the slums often have much in common: poor ventilation, limited clean water supplies and a scarcity of toilets and sewage systems. One government definition describes a slums structures as huddled together, a term I thought more literary than technical until I saw shacks literally leaning on each other for support. The estimated 3 million Kolkatans who live in the citys 5,000 slums are often the luckier ones; at least they have some shelter. The poorest, the sidewalk-dwellers, sleep on the streets, babies pressed carefully between couples on the sidewalks. Even though rickshaws are technically banned, near-naked men in bare feet still jog their charges along the filthy streets.
Some slums are nicer than others. The ones closer to the city, like Chetla, are often hundreds of years old, with pukka houses made of concrete, tin roofs and real floors. In Panchanantala, a name I find excuses to keep saying, about 20 teenage girls sat in bright saris in the middle of what seemed to be the main street, singing joyfully to a Hindu shrine, while people milled around, buying fruit and vegetables from local vendors.