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Addressing a Virtual Community Read

By Sophie Stein, the 2020-2021 CALS Undergraduate Intern

The Centre County Reads (CCR) program for 2021 proved that a year after the start of the pandemic, Centre County residents have got it figured out. Anything but strangers to Zoom meetings and virtual events now, participants navigated a unique year of programming as if it were second nature. Although not able to meet in person, participants embraced the redefined experience of community reading, resulting in an unusual yet successful season of CCR events. The virtual format allowed participants to reconnect with old friends while greeting new ones via their computer screens.

This year’s read focused on Deirdre Mask’s The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power (2020). Post-presidential election and mid-pandemic, public fixation on addresses and the U.S. Postal Service was at an all time high, presenting CCR with an opportune moment to look at addresses more closely as a community. Mask’s book reveals how behind unassuming street names and numbers, addresses disclose a great deal about a society’s values and cultural traditions. Treating structures of power that result in race and wealth disparities, The Address Book leaves no stone unturned. As an African American woman who grew up in the Southern US and now resides in London, Mask is no stranger to the social and geographical dimensions of addresses. The book’s scope spans the globe, examining the origins and meanings of addressing systems found in ancient Rome and mid-19th century London, as well as present-day Kolkata, Tokyo, and NYC, among many other locations.

Programming this year began with two themed-book discussions, including one focused on public health and another on legislative redistricting. For the first event, CCR welcomed special guest Lisa Davis. As Director of the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health, Davis connected the themes of The Address Book to her expertise and experience studying the effects of redlining. The social determinants of health, Davis outlined, vary drastically in rural areas as opposed to urban ones, and show even greater discrepancies in heavily redlined districts. Many attendees found a personal connection to this kickoff presentation, having lived in both rural and urban areas themselves. One participant commented that Mask’s book and this kickoff “changed the way [she] thought about addresses entirely,” prompting her to be more mindful of the addresses she passes by and inhabits.

For the second themed-book discussion on legislative redistricting, guest speaker Debbie Trudeau discussed Fair Districts PA, a statewide, nonpartisan coalition she helps organize. Taking inspiration from Mask’s focus on the ways in which boundary markers of various kinds too often operate to promote inequity rather than fairness, Trudeau shared with a captivated audience how Fair Districts PA has been working hard in recent years to advocate for a legislative districting system that is “impartial, transparent, and accountable.”  Responding to attendees’ questions, Trudeau suggested ways in which all of us can get involved at the local level in advocating for redistricting reform that will lead to truly “competitive, free, and fair elections.”  

Addressing Inequity Roundtable
_Addressing Inequity_ Panel: Top Row (L-R): Christy Pottroff (Boston College), Ashley Cashion (what3words); Bottom Row (L-R): Eunice Toh (Penn State), Moderator Robbin Degeratu

In addition to the general and themed book discussions held virtually by the Bellefonte and Schlow libraries, CALS once again sponsored a roundtable discussion in which three invited panelists drew inspiration from The Address Book to discuss how addresses both provide and limit access to mobility and power. Titled “Addressing Inequity,” the discussion featured Assistant Professor of English Christy Pottroff from Boston College; Ashley Marie Cashion, the U.S. Strategic Partnerships Director for what3words, a London-based geocoding organization Mask treats in the book’s conclusion; and Eunice Toh, a dual degree English and African American and Diaspora Studies graduate student at Penn State and the current CALS Grad RA. Drawing on their research, each panelist provided audience members a specific lens through which to view The Address Book. Pottroff focused on the history of the U.S. Postal Service from the nineteenth century to the present, while Toh took the audience on a virtual trip across the twentieth century, analyzing how The Green Book, the inspiration for a recent Academy Award-winning film, served as a crucial guide for Black travelers during segregation. Lastly, Cashion presented a glimpse of the digital future of addresses, outlining the mission of what3words and how it aims to reinvent, by democratizing, modes of addressing across the world.

The highlight of the slate of programming was a visit by Mask to Centre County, albeit virtually, during which she invited and responded to the audience's enthusiastic questions. At the outset of the event, the winners of the annual CALS-sponsored writing contest were announced. Entitled “Forms of Address,” this year’s contest invited entrants to submit their best fiction and nonfiction in which someone or something upsets hierarchical “forms'' of addressing. (Winning entries can be found here.)  Following the announcement, Lorraine Dowler, Professor of Geography and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Penn State, moderated a discussion between Mask and the nearly one-hundred audience members in attendance. Mask answered an array of questions from attendees about the book’s differently focused chapters, the writing process, traveling, and her favorite, most surprising moments spent researching the book. Since publishing The Address Book in early 2020, Mask shared that her engagement with the book’s central focus has not stopped. After four years of writing, Mask is still obsessed with addresses. She subscribes to Google Updates for street name changes and shared, “every morning my inbox is flooded with updates.” She remarked amusedly that she could write an endless number of sequels to The Address Book

Evident in the several general book discussions held across the two-months-long series of programming, The Address Book had something for everyone. Readers liked how the specific chapters allowed them to pick up the book and put it down at any section and any city. Some found personal connections to chapters based on places they had traveled to, cities they have friends and family living in, or simply based on their social or political interests. Other book discussion attendees indicated they probably would not have picked up The Address Book on their own without CCR’s recommendation but ended up loving it and recommended it to friends. Most did not anticipate being so touched by a book about addresses, and one participant even said they “could feel the passion” through Mask’s global and exhaustive research.

Leaving participants with much to think about, Mask got people talking about addresses in ways they never had before. In a final book discussion, an attendee asked, “Is our identity linked to place?” and “What does it mean for addresses that our society is becoming increasingly mobile?” Addresses and addressing systems are evolving and reflect the identity of people and places as much as they identify them. As such thought-provoking reflections suggest, Centre County Reads saw an apt and beautiful marriage of the selected book and the circumstances of a community still dealing with the pandemic. Centre county residents were poetically brought together virtually—each from their own home address—to discuss The Address Book in the context of an unprecedented programming line-up.