An Interview with Deirdre Mask

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Deirdre Mask in May 2020. You can listen to the interview here.

Mignon: I'm here with Deirdre Mask, author of a book called "The Address Book." And we're going to talk about ZIP codes and so much more. Welcome, Deirdre.

Deirdre: Thank you so much for having me, Mignon.

Mignon: You bet. I'm so excited to talk with you about these things. So in the first part of this podcast, we talked about ZIP codes and that they didn't exist until the 1960s. So can you tell me more about how they came to be and how they got introduced?

Deirdre: Yeah, I mean, we totally take them for granted now. But basically around the 40s, you have this explosion in mail, and you have this postal worker. His name is Robert Moon. And he comes up with this idea that he pushed for 20 years to get implemented, to come up with the idea of the ZIP code. He called himself "Mr. Zip." But in general (and on July 1st, 1963, was when they actually introduced the five-digit ZIP code), and ZIP code stands for "zoning improvement plan," I mean, it was actually incredibly practical way of dealing with the onslaught of mail because it makes it much easier to do mechanical sorting. So you have these five digits of the ZIP code, and the first digit is from 0 to 9 (10 digits), 0 being the Northeast all the way to 9 on the West Coast. So you can kind of track that. And then the other digits just sort of get smaller and smaller until like a larger postal, the largest sort of postal center office, and then it gets smaller and smaller to those final little digits at the end that a lot of people forget to add, and which really narrow down just to a few streets or sometimes even just one high-rise building.

Mignon: Wow. So those are the four digits that you can then tack on?

Deirdre: Exactly. Exactly. Yes, exactly. 

Mignon: So Mr. ZIP...it took him 20 years, but he finally did it and...

Deirdre: Yeah, he says it was a committee.

Deirdre: He very much I think till his death rallied for himself, and his wife even wore a little necklace that said "Mrs. Zip" on it her whole life. And she claimed later in his obituary that they were Republicans, that the post-office officials were Democrats. And this was why he didn't get he didn't get his idea through faster ...

Mignon: And wasn't there a song?

Deirdre: Yes. So, you know, it seems obvious now that we use ZIP codes, but at the beginning, people were really suspicious of them. They didn't know. Why do we need these? Why would you use them? So there was actually this huge marketing campaign that the post office put forth. So there was a little character called Mr. Zip, who is this really cute cartoon character who advertised them. And there was his band, which was called the Swinging Six, and it's actually been described to me as folk/Broadway. So you can picture whatever you like. And if you search the Swinging Six on YouTube, you can see some of their work. And they wrote, you know, they came out, they would sing these songs to advertise, which had like, you know, really charming lyrics, like, here's an example. "Well, hello, my friend. How do you do? We hope you have a moment or two to listen to what we have to say to each and every one of you. It concerns our postal system." So it was much more charming and catchy way. So I got I highly encourage everyone to go to YouTube to to hear the Swinging Six do their thing.

Mignon: Oh, that's amazing. It kind of reminds me of Schoolhouse Rock, but for ZIP codes.

Deirdre: Yes, exactly. And it was hugely successful. I mean, they were adopted fairly quickly. And they really have made sorting mail incredibly easy. And they and they have other uses as well.

Mignon: That's great. So from your from your book, I learned the ZIP codes aren't the only thing that's newer than I had imagined.

Deirdre: Yes.

Mignon: Addresses in general are kind of new--these things you just completely take for granted. And there are some people around the world, but also even in the United States who have a home but don't have an address still. Right?

Deirdre: Yeah, absolutely. And this is sort of have I got into this project was that I discovered this weird fact that most people in the world--it's billions of people in the world--don't have addresses or at least not any kind of reliable address that you could use. And it was just kind of weird, quirky fact at first. But then when you actually think about it, it's hugely important because without a street address, you can't bank, you can't get credit in some places. Everywhere you'll find it difficult to vote. There's no privacy, if you get a letter, you know, it's this huge problem. It's also a problem for the government because they can't tax people. And obviously, taxes are a huge way of getting revenue for any kind of city. And so when I found this out, I was like, this is very interesting. I'm American. This doesn't happen. And I found this article that at the time, West Virginia didn't really have street addresses. There were a lot of... not the whole state, but often the very rural parts of the state didn't have street names. And so there's this huge push in the 2000s to give street names. And this has it's it's a huge problem for people to operate and live without being able to have a targeted place where you can send mail and find them.

Mignon: Right. But some people are suspicious. They don't want an address or ZIP code, right?

Deirdre: Yeah. And that makes a lot of sense at first. You know, I saw this when I traveled to West Virginia and the stories in my book, you'd hear about people, you know, literally in rural West Virginia meeting. .there was one story of meeting and addressing coordinator with a machete sticking out of his pocket. It's kind of a flamboyant story, but there were a lot of people who didn't want the street names. And some of it was, you know, I like things the way they are. But actually, it makes a lot of sense because the history of street names, I mean, we use addresses now. We think they help us and they do help us. You know, we get our mail, we're able to navigate, we're able to do all these useful things, get, you know, go to the bank. But actually, they were designed in the 18th century, really to find you. So it's really a matter of, largely, at least in the European story, monarchs, saying, look, I want to find you, so I can do things to you. That I can tax you. That I can draft you into my war. That I can find criminals. That can find dissidents. There were all sorts of reasons that people wanted to give addresses that should make you suspicious.

Mignon: I love this little anecdote from your book. And it was so wonderful. I think it was in the 18th century when they painted the addresses on people's houses or doors. And then the people would cover them up or even chisel them off. They would try to remove the address that the monarch had just put on her door, and it was a subversive act.

Deirdre: Exactly. This subversive because, you know, we take it for granted. But there is something to being found if you're used to being able to to do what you want to, and all of a sudden, you know, the government, the eye of this monarch, you know, especially back then --not really elected--You know they have these aims, and they can suddenly see you. You're unmasked. You still live in your house. It used to be private. And all of a sudden, they can see you. And often the numbers were also doing sort of a rough census at the time as well to figure out who was there. So it actually was, there was actually really good reason to rebel, so ... people would say this is born out of ignorance, that some people in rural areas didn't want street names and numbers. but actually, you know, it might have been also some insight as to what people actually want to do sometimes when they have an address, which is find you. And there are often good reasons for not wanting to be found.

Mignon: Yeah. Yeah. I want to get my Amazon packages, but...

Deirdre: . Exactly. Exactly. But they can also slap taxes on you. Yes.

Mignon: Right. Well, you mentioned at the beginning that ZIP codes can be used for much more than just mail delivery. How so?

Deirdre: Exactly. It's a weird thing that zip codes.

Deirdre: You know, the post office very much holds to that they were used for mail and efficient sorting of mail. But we humans have found all of these other creative ways of using them for better or for worse. So, for example, there was one commentator in The New York Times, who said, "Nobody but nobody predicted 90210. This idea that ZIP codes have become demographic tools and ways of sectioning out large areas. So, it can be quite useful to have this, you know, in terms of describing different places in different regions in America. But they can also be sort of a tool for marketing. And sometimes this turns to discrimination. So there's a company, for example, where you can type in your ZIP code, and it'll tell you the percentage different demographics within that ZIP code. So, for example, if you type in a certain ZIP code in Philadelphia, you know, a huge demographic is what they call "modest income homes." And they will tell you what these people are like, which is "consumers in this market consider traditional gender roles and religious faith very important. This market lives for today, choosing to save only for a specific purpose. They favor TV as their media of choice and will purchase a product with a celebrity endorsement." Whereas if you type in 90210, (this was the example I gave) They describe them as "socially responsible consumers who aim for a balanced lifestyle. They are goal oriented and hardworking, but make time for their kids and grandkids and maintain a close knit group of friends." You know, it goes on. You know, "they take an interest in the fine arts. They regularly cook their meals at home, attentive to good nutrition." And it just seems it seems a bit bizarre. But, you know, there are lots of success stories of marketers using these as a way to target their services. And sometimes this can exacerbate existing problems in a neighborhood. If it's a neighborhood that's known to be large consumers of fast food, then a fast food company might say, great, this is a great place to put a fast food company here when the last thing that neighborhood needs is another fast food company. What they really need is a really great grocery store that would offer, you know, fresh fruits and vegetables. But the demographics don't really quite indicate that from these descriptions.

Mignon: Wow, that's fascinating.

Deirdre: Yeah.

Mignon: They have to gather that information. That's more than just census data.

Deirdre: It's more than just census data. I'm not exactly sure how they do it.  It'd be interesting to see, but a lot of it's own. But yeah. But, you know, I encourage everybody to take a look in to see what they think.

Mignon: Yeah. So where is that?

Deirdre: It's just online. So it's this you know, you can it's ESRI.com and the system is called Tapestry. So, you know, you can also look to see if your your your neighborhood has a large demographic of soccer moms or heartland communities. I mean, there are dozens of them.

Mignon: How do you spell that? It's fascinating.

Deirdre: It's from the company, ESRI, which I believe. I don't want to get this wrong, which I believe is...if you Google "ESRI Tapestry," then you'll see and you can type up, and you can learn more about how they do this, and the way they describe it is "get more insights into America's changing population."

Mignon: Wow.

Deirdre: So yeah. So it's I mean, it's an interesting, you know, and also they're also quite useful now for describing different places. So there was a great piece in The New York Times this weekend that was about how much schools differ by ZIP codes. And there's a lot of really interesting statistics about life expectancy in ZIP codes. So you can have different cities where just blocks over the life expectancy difference is 25 years. In Chicago, life expectancy varied by up to 30 years in one study, just through different ZIP codes or different neighborhoods. So it's also a way of showing disparities in places that are actually quite close together.

Mignon: Yeah, and one thing at the beginning of your book, it wasn't about ZIP codes in particular, but about addresses, is they were important for epidemiological research, which, you know, tracking cholera, which just felt so relevant today when we're trying to track the coronavirus. And you had that addresses and probably ZIP codes are really important for epidemiology, too.

Deirdre: Yeah. And it goes back to our earlier point about street addresses and how they're useful to us or how they can be damaging to us in the sense that, as you said in Victorian London (I'm actually in London right now), in Victorian London, you have John Snow, who's tracking cholera, it's a very different kind of disease and coronavirus. It's bacterial. It's spread in different ways. But it's also like a lot of disease, you know, location is important. So John Snow is able to use death certificates and addresses and interviewing people in different places to find out that cholera was coming from a very specific pump in Soho, which at the time was a slum in London. And I was really interested in this, only to find out that, you know, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, when they had their own cholera outbreak, you would think we would have gotten so good at this. But they didn't even have the tool that John Snow had to track people, which was addresses. So I spoke to the chief logistician for Haiti at the time, who will tell me that, you know, people would say "my address this turn left at the mango tree." Well, when you're trying to track disease and locate sources of water and locate outbreaks, this is incredibly difficult to map.

Deirdre: And so the tools that we had in that that London had in Victorian London weren't even applicable in 2010 in a lot of places. And a huge percentage of the world, I can't give any numbers, but a lot of the parts of the world are unmapped, not just unaddressed, but there aren't even maps. And so there's this great organization. I encourage everybody, especially people, to spare time to go to, which is called Missing Maps, where from home, you can do real-life, really important work, which is you download the satellite information for a place in the world that's unmapped. And it's actually quite therapeutic. You trace the roads, and you can actually map using satellite data. And then somebody on the ground later will actually look and give names as to what people in the neighborhood called names. So that in advance of an epidemic, you aren't just sending, as I heard people, do just motorcycles into nothing with no maps and no description of what's going on. So if people are looking for a lockdown activity, I highly recommend trying to do some work with Missing Maps. And you can find them online.

Mignon: That's amazing. That sounds like a really good use of people's time. And also I can imagine how it'd be therapeutic.

Deirdre: Yes, it really is. It really is. And you get a sense for what these places you know, the damage that it can cause different places not having maps and not having these fine grained statistics. I mean, think about, you know, you take for granted that an ambulance can just turn up at your door, or that you might be able to get fine-grained statistics. So where coronavirus is in your town or even in your neighborhood, because we have these like really easy ways of pinpointing where people are now. And that's just hugely difficult in huge parts of the world and puts them at a severe disadvantage.

Mignon: Yeah, well, that that's what struck me most about your book, is just how much we take for granted that is underlying all the things that society does and the government does that we just assume have always been there, but they haven't. And the stories about how they came to be are really fascinating. So the book, again, is called "The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power." And the author is with me today. She's Deirdre Mask. And thank you so much Deirdre.

Deirdre: Thank you so much, Mignon. I really appreciate you having me on.

Mignon: You bet. No, it's fascinating. I'm about halfway through the book. I can't wait to finish it, so everyone else should read it, too. It's called "The Address Book."

Deirdre: Thank you so much.

Mignon: You're welcome. Have a great day.