In ancient Rome they had no name. Nor do they carry it in the cities of today’s Japan. In Europe in the Middle Ages they were called for the trades that were carried out in their premises. In many places in the United States they are simply numbered. The names of the streets are a universe in themselves. They are very different in different parts of the world and say a lot, but a lot about the people who inhabit them.
What about people who don’t have an address if, for example, they need an ambulance or if they expect an urgent package or if they want to vote by mail? Lawyer and writer Deirdre Mask asked herself that question when she went to visit a friend in West Virginia. Her street had neither a name nor a number and that made him almost, almost undocumented.
“The Romans moved by landmarks such as shops or statues and by smells and flavors”
So Mask decided to pull the string and started researching street names. His investigations have resulted the stray (Captain Swing), a book that contains a thousand and one stories about addresses from the origins of cities to the present throughout the planet.
Ancient Rome lacked directions, but its inhabitants did not get lost, “because the city was very rich in visual and sensory signals. The Romans moved around landmarks such as shops, statues, buildings or arches, and also guided by smells, sights or tastes”, explains Mask in an interview with The vanguard .
During the Middle Ages, the streets were given trade names to guide the craftsmen who worked in them: Cutters, Button makers, Embroiderers, Plasterers, Booksellers, Spinners, Dyers… “With the French Revolution there was a change and the streets began to bear the names of people, because the revolutionaries wanted to adjust them to their ideals and honor their heroes”, adds the author, although she acknowledges that “this transformation was also taking place in other parts of the world, Paris was not alone”.
The curious case of Japan
When a European or American travels to Japan, they have a good chance of getting lost, because there “addresses are organized by blocks instead of streets and the residents are used to getting around in a different way,” says Deirdre Mask, although she points out that “now, with smartphones things have changed”, but he remembers that “I have heard stories of party invitations that included a beautifully drawn map to get to the venue”.
There were names, but no numbers for things. That was a later idea that was the result of the Enlightenment “at a crucial moment in history in which rationality and equality were opted for, although the numbering of houses also had a lot to do with a moment in which governments began to take an interest in to control the citizens. The Archduchess of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Maria Theresa numbered the streets of Vienna and other cities in her territory in the mid-18th century because she “needed more soldiers and the numbering of the houses helped her find them.”
The gestures of the French revolutionaries and Maria Teresa were a first step towards the politicization of the streets through their nomenclature. Then things got worse and now “the names of the streets are definitely political weapons, because above all they have to do with power: the power to decide who names a street is to control it. We see it now in the Ukraine, where Russian street names are removed. Changing street names is a key move in any regime change.”
Things are different in some American cities, too: “Americans have long embraced the grid as a way of organizing cities, in part because Europeans came to a land that was already populated, but in a completely different way than the they knew and saw that making gridded streets with straight lines was an easy way to divide, organize and sell land quickly”, explains the author of The stray. However, what is most striking in the eyes of Europeans is that many American streets, instead of names, are identified by numbers. Mask also has an explanation for that: “The numbering was inspired by the Quaker religion, although William Penn had already created a city grid to avoid big fires like London in 1666 and had numbered his streets. For Americans, this formula became an easy and rational way to identify the streets and also a way to show that the United States is a very different country from the European ones”, concludes the writer.
And for this very reason “there are more streets named after men around the world.” “It is not surprising because it was men who wrote the history books and also named the streets. Now many countries are trying to rectify this and in others there are groups putting up unofficial street signs with women’s names alongside the statutory ones which, of course, are named after men,” concludes Mask.