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WHY DO STREET ADDRESSES MATTER?
NEW YORK, WEST VIRGINIA, AND LONDON
In some years, more than 40 percent 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 mayor’s president. Its fifty-one members monitor the country’s 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 eleven states’. On top of that, New York’s streets have largely been named or numbered since the nineteenth century with some street names, like Stuyvesant and the Bowery, dating from when Manhattan was little more than a Dutch trading station.
And yet, I’ll say it again: in some years, more than 40 percent 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 B.I.G.) 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 Men’s Movement Against Crack, organized 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 organized a boycott of all Korean grocery stores, where protesters urged blacks not to give their money to “people who don’t look like us.” Asked if he was anti-Semitic, Carson responded that he was “antiwhite. Don’t limit my antis to just one group of people.” Mayor Bloomberg said, “there’s 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 Sonny Carson vigorously organized 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. Don’t judge his life on his most provocative statements, his supporters asked. Still, Carson was controversial in the African American community as well. When black councilman Leroy Comrie abstained from the street name vote, Barron’s 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 Law & Order actor Jerry Orbach and 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. Councilman Barron pointed out that New York had long honored flawed men, including Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owning “pedophile.” “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?
I’ll get to that. But first, another story.
* * *
I did not, at first, plan to write an entire book about street addresses. Instead, I set out to write a letter. I was living in the west of Ireland, and I had sent a birthday card to my father in North Carolina. I pressed a stamp on the envelope, and just four days later the card appeared in my parents’ mailbox. I thought, not particularly originally, that this should have been much more expensive than it was. And how did Ireland and the United States share the proceeds? Is there some accountant in a windowless back room of the post office, dividing each penny between the two countries?
Answering that question led me to the Universal Postal Union. Founded in 1874, the Universal Postal Union, based in Bern, Switzerland, is the world’s second-oldest international organization. The UPU coordinates the worldwide postal system. I was soon lost in its website, which is surprisingly engrossing, explaining debates about e-banking and postal policing of illegal narcotics, mixed with lighter posts on World Post Day and international letter-writing competitions.
After I answered my own question—the UPU has a complex system for deciding the fees countries charge each other for handling international mail—I came across an initiative called Addressing the World, An Address for Everyone. Here, I learned for the first time that billions of people don’t have reliable addresses. Addresses, the UPU 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. Soon, I learned that parts of the rural United States don’t have street addresses either. On my next visit home, I borrowed my dad’s car, and drove to West Virginia to see for myself.
* * *
The first problem I had was finding Alan Johnston. Johnston was a friend of a friend who had petitioned the county government for a street address. The street he lives on had never had a name, and he had never had a house number. Like most residents of McDowell County, he had to pick up his mail at the post office. When he first tried to order a computer, the woman from Gateway asked him for his address. “You have to live on a street,” she told him. “You have to be somewhere.” She called the power company and put a representative on a three-way call to confirm Johnston’s location. Sometimes deliverymen found him, but sometimes they didn’t. He often had to drive to Welch (pop. 1,715), about four miles away, to meet a new UPS driver.
Copyright © 2020 by Deirdre Mask