Where The Streets Have No Name


Thiago Carrapatoso

There are several cities and countries that do not use names to mark their streets, as is the case in Ghana, several Japanese cities, or even Brazil's favelas. In each instance, there exist different relationships with this nomenclature system that can be understood in terms of targeted interference in the way locals navigate inside the city or even from a political perspective that explains a division of classes present in society. What is common between them is that the names that appear at street corners have a much greater meaning than being just a simple name: they can (and are) used as a mechanism of control by the government or private companies to guide us in how to relate to the urban space. The nomenclature then goes beyond being a mere word, becoming what I call an urban commodity. In other words, it is an intrinsic system of the urban environment that has value in and of itself and is used by the macrostructure to plan, monitor, and control society.
In the case of Ghana, for example, the government received financial support from the World Bank and USAID fund to map, mark, number, and name the streets of the country. Using the argument that more than 50% of the population now lives in urban areas, the aim was to enable telephone companies and financial institutions to more easily track those who do not pay their bills. Until then, companies were at the mercy of knowing the place and asking locals for a few references (such as a specific tree or some most notorious resident) to locate the debtor – which could take weeks to happen. Now, with the new system, financial institutions can quickly collect what is owed. In addition, international funds use the argument that it will bring greater revenues for the country, so it should encourage investment in mapping, and they could lend money to the government – thus increasing its external debt.
What can be seen in this case is that the naming of streets is more than just the name, but something that has value in itself and is used to order and structure the urban environment. Japanese cities, however, instead of using nomenclatures, prefer to use a number system for blocks, leaving the streets in these areas without specific names. To find one’s way in the urban space, then one must develop a familiarity with the area by asking locals or using a GPS system. The navigation is not intuitive, which makes the passerby interact more actively with the space to try to find what they need.
On the other hand, the favelas of Brazil also don't have names for the streets, but for different reasons. While in the Japanese cities the government decided to adopt a number system for demarcation, due to the unregulated occupation of the slums, the region expands depending of the arrival of new families and not according to the number of available homes. They are heavily populated areas that do not respond directly to the offers of the real estate market as, generally, the lots are illegal. In these regions, the (lack of) names of streets are related to the economic status of its residents and the lack of government interest in regulating this situation. Therefore, the nomenclature becomes something of pride to the communities living in the slums, since when they have their space demarcated they feel included in a city that sees them as an outcast. Even Google Maps, when mapping the city of Rio de Janeiro, decided not to go to the slums, using violence and narrow streets as an argument.
The use of the term urban commodity is a provocation to demonstrate that the mere naming is also something that can be used for purposes beyond spatially locating a resident. This term for this end seeks to clarify how the naming system is used to leverage up the real estate market in specific areas of the city in order to convince residents to accept increasingly exorbitant prices per square meter in some neighborhoods. This is the case with Bushwick, Brooklyn, for example. Because of increasing gentrification process, the real estate market changes the name of the region of some parts of the neighborhood so that tenants or buyers will identify a region as being more highly valued than it really is. In this sense, a buyer does not only buy an apartment, but an entire nexus of signifying interrelations related to the idea of a locality.
One of the reasons for discussing this system in this thesis is that this very mechanism can be found either in the gentrification process or in attempts to control communities living in urban spaces. In some cases, when a community is gentrified, the new residents – or even the real estate market – strives to change the names of streets or even of entire neighborhoods in order to erase its history and build a new one, as was the case in Bushwick mentioned above. Moreover, politicians also use this same trick in return for favors, to try other political positions or even for reelection. It is a form of political bargaining between politicians and the communities that elected them (as is explained in further detail in Italo Calvino's section).
Calvino's Invisible Cities, for example, among the various cities described in the book, contains a story about one that has no names to identify the streets and passages. The residents of Zaira must rely only on their memory and the marks left on the urban infrastructure as a way to navigate. Urban infrastructure refers here to the physical buildings that exist in space, whether they be houses, overpasses, bridges, sidewalks, and so on. Thus, the history of Zaira's residents is embedded in space itself and a reference is needed in order to navigate in its space.
Just as the history of the inhabitants leaves marks on the infrastructure, the infrastructure itself also influences the way one operates in a city. This question is addressed in the work of VALIE EXPORT. For her, the cities' architecture is responsible for shaping how our bodies behave, altering even psychologically how we understand ourselves and the urban space.
Milton Machado, in turn, extracts the social relations present in urban space to create an abstraction over the anxiety of progress and development represented by the cities. For Machado, there is a never-attainable idealization by urban planners of what would be a perfect urban space (based on developmental values), which leads them to implement these projects without even understanding the real social demands at work in those spaces. The characters present in History of the Future are fractions of a single personality which represent how the social aspect is forgotten in the eagerness for progress. Although they keep cities living (such as the Nomad), they are also expelled, killed, and forced to maintain a synchronous relation with the imposed change (represented by the Module of Destruction).
Machado's initial idea was to try to connect all of the continents in order to create the single continent of Pangea. No borders, no boundaries of nations, no barriers. The sovereignty of nations, which is associated with a nomenclature used to define territorial areas, would then be called into question, and another mode of relationship between different cultures could arise. This subject is explored by Teresa Margolles when interviewing residents of the cities of El Paso, USA, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, about their impressions of those cities. El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are cities divided by the border between the two countries. Even though they share the same urban space, this boundary creates a dissociation of the two sides and how its residents see each other.
It is interesting to see how the question of territoriality is viewed from different perspectives. While Machado creates an abstraction to end it and Margolles points to the current political problems in national divisions, Claudio Bueno presents another variation: how the virtual can hack the physicality required for monuments that represent the history of a particular place. The Invisible Monuments series use the virtual to establish new monuments in places that would be impossible if they were actually built. In the case of the Chant des Sirènes, Bueno has created a mobile app that contains a sound monument celebrating the history of women killed in the First and Second World Wars. The work can only be accessed when the coordinates of a mobile phone's GPS enters the Old Port of Québec, in Canada. While the other monuments in the region exalt the male figure and tell a history chosen without necessarily involving the population, Bueno's invisible monuments demonstrate a more democratic approach to selecting which history should be told.
As has become clear by now, the object of study of this thesis is not gentrification per se, but how the naming mechanism can be understood through different biases. This work therefore does not present arguments about only one system used to change the urban center, but rather about the social consequences that these instances of interference have. By avoiding the description just to situate the object, it is possible to focus on the inter- and intra-relationships that occur in the urban space. It is a work of an ethologist, so to speak, as Andrew Goffey explains in the introduction of the book “Capitalist Sorcery.” To Goffey, the ethologist studies the relationships of animals with their environment instead of trying to describe in concrete ways what the animal is in and of itself. Only in this way it is possible to understand what a particular animal may cause in its inhabitat and its interference in the ecosystem.
"Ethology requires us to focus a little more closely on the relationship that is established between the animal and the ethologist, a focus that, transposed to the field of politics should lead to a more nuanced understanding of the way in which capitalism constantly reorganizes itself to prevent people getting a hold. The vampire squids of capitalism engage in the creation of 'infernal alternatives'."
Studying the control mechanisms of a city only by the description and not by its social relations is to fall into what the authors Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers refer to as “infernal alternatives,” which is to say “a scientist whose professional certainties about what are the right questions to ask can lead him or her to adopt a frighteningly dismissive stance with regard to anything that falls outside this position.” The problem of falling into an “infernal alternative” is getting stuck on issues where the answer appears hollow in relation to the question, or the results do not associate the object with the explanation (“getting hold”). For the authors, when an anti-capitalist struggle appears, one has the idea that only a divine intervention could interfere in the economic productive mechanisms, as if there weren't a right answer to the question about how to change it. It is to avoid this feeling of powerlessness in relation to capitalism that they advocate for a pragmatic analysis, which is “an art of consequences, an art of 'paying attention' that is opposed to the philosophy of the omelette justifying the cracked eggs.” In other words, this method does not want to justify an anti-capitalist struggle based on the problems of capitalism itself, but to understand what consequences the conflict has on the environment in which it operates. It is for this reason that this thesis seeks to understand the effects of nomenclature inside the urban environment. It is an attempt to question not only how urban planning is currently conducted in large cities, but also to stress the social relationships with the city's infrastructure using interventions and works of art as a platform for the argument.
Each chapter focuses on the work of one artist and explains different views on this nomenclature system for urban areas. The intent is to demonstrate the different ways of understanding the cities and to problematize the social issues about how we relate in this environment.

Keywords: control, gentrification, government, real estate market, urban planning.