Who knew house numbering was a controversial topic?

For most of us, our address consists of a street number that makes it easy to find. But books that are set in England long ago or in rural areas will frequently refer to a house by the name given to it by a past resident, like ‘The Larches’. There did not seem to be any street numbering system and I used to wonder how people unfamiliar with an area found a house other than walking up and down the street looking at the house names or asking any local whom they met.

The lack of the traditional street numbering system is also seen in Japan but there is an alternative system that, while seeming strange to outsiders, has a definite structure that enables one to zero in on the location. Unlike the system in the US where the address starts with the smallest unit such as the name of the person, then proceeds to the house number and then to the street, then the city, then the state, and then the country, in Japan it goes in the reverse order, with the largest unit such as the city coming first and the name coming last. It seems to work well. I hear that Japan has a different way of entering a destination in its GPS system in order to find places, as this video describes.

I started musing on this because of a news report that a nearby small town called Carmel-by-the Sea apparently also does not have a street numbering system and a proposal to introduce one in order to make places easier to find has aroused opposition and created a controversy.

The reluctance is wrapped up in ideals of city character. According to an agenda report for last week’s council meeting, “tradition and preservation of the city’s charm, unique look, and culture have been at the forefront of its governing body and residents’ preference in the past to reject implementing a street addressing system.”

In 1926, City trustees passed an ordinance for house numbering of Carmel-by-the-Sea properties. The ordinance made it unlawful for the owner of any real property in the City to “maintain any house, building, or structure…without posting securely…visible to passerby…a number plate showing in legible figures the number of said premises,” according to staff research. The ordinance was passed by a unanimous vote but the city did not implement or enforce the posting of house numbers. Without any enforcement, the measure was eventually repealed in 1940.

Years later, in 1953, the city even threatened to secede from California when the state considered making it mandatory to have house numbers.

In the modern day, street numbering serves many important functions and residents living there have to find workarounds.

Concerns voiced by community members vary from struggling to provide proof of residence to watching paramedics and fire trucks respond to the wrong house. Without the often expectation of having a street address, residents have expressed difficulties in opening or maintaining financial accounts, securing loans, activating or changing basic utilities like wireless internet, having packages delivered to the correct house or being “findable” in an emergency as a matter of public safety.

Workarounds to the problem, such as asking neighbors to be on the lookout for each other’s packages or offering descriptions akin to “it’s the third house on the left,” have helped patch some confusion. But community members turned out at last week’s council meeting to explain that complications are common and increasingly frustrating.

“We need to move forward into the 21st century with having our actual addresses,” one speaker argued.

Interestingly, the town apparently has no home mail delivery either and people have to go to the post office to get their mail. And some people like it that way.

Staff maintains that the city’s post office has a long local history as being a place where residents regularly visit to not only check their PO boxes but also make idle conversation. Determined to keep the social hub up and running, staff priorities while researching a street address program include protecting Carmel’s post office and refusing to implement at-home mail delivery service. With these goals in mind, staff is in communication with Carmel’s Postmaster to see whether establishing street addresses would compel the United States Postal Service to require mail delivery, regardless of city interests, explained Carmel administrative analyst Emily Gray.

Small town controversies have a charm of their own, even though they can become extremely heated.


  1. Bruce Fuentes says

    Puerto Rico has similar issues. Though mainlanders bitch about it and blame Puerto Rico, it is due to the US government when they assumed the colonization if the island.

  2. Holms says

    “City character” i.e. to be different to other cities -- this strikes me as one of the less useful reasons to hold out against useful change.

  3. Some Old Programmer says

    Even with a street number, pitfalls may be present. In the ’90s I tried to find our hotel in Sydney, Australia (our taxi driver couldn’t be bothered, apparently, and dropped us off the next street over). I walked a fair few blocks down the street until it ended. Only then did I discover that the numbers on either side of the street had little relation to each other; I had to walk back those blocks on the other side of the street to find the hotel.

  4. lanir says

    That doesn’t sound quaint it just sounds obnoxious with a side of dangerous. No mail delivery is very inefficient as well (think one postal vehicle making a trip vs several dozen other vehicles making one). If people want a gathering place they can make one worth visiting and buy a PO box.

    If I were stuck dealing with this I’d probably setup a basic honeypot trap (a numbered mailbox + hidden cameras for instance) and then sic the law on any vandals.

    Small towns can be nice but they can also be pretty awful. When you run into unfriendly people in big groups it’s not hard to find other people to be around. When groups get too small you can run out of options really fast especially if you want something that problematic people have control of.

  5. cartomancer says

    Not having house numbers is not a literary thing, or an archaic thing, here in England. In the rural parts of it house names are the norm. I’ve only ever lived in one house that did have a number, the rest have all had names. They do have postcodes, though, which is how the post gets here when we need it. The thing about rural England is that roads are generally rather short, winding and random in nature. House numbers on most village roads would barely run into double figures, so if you know the road name you’ve pretty much got there already. The local postman will be familiar with the place.

    As for visitors… well, we tend not to have those very much. These are local places, for local people -- we’ll have no trouble here!

  6. Tethys says

    There are many rural areas in my state where there are seasonal lake cabins that do not have a street address or postal service.

    They do however have a fire number, so that the firefighters and emergency services connected to the 911 system can reach them without wasting any time searching for an address.

  7. EigenSprocketUK says

    My home (rural UK) has two addresses (go figure): the one the Royal Mail uses, and the one the local council uses.
    The council one has the format: Old Chapel Junction, Road Name (where road name = [tiny hamlet name] + To + [somewhere at the end of a lane named after a dead animal]).
    The rest of the address is just the name of the small mountain under my feet.
    Fortunately the postcode (zip code) used by the Royal Mail works better.
    Well, sometimes, except when people have an old postcode database and go to the wrong side of the mountain. “No, you need the [roadname] on the other side where the old chapel used to be. If I don’t see you in twenty minutes, I’ll come and find you.”
    Oh yes, like Blake said: the bank refuses to use either of the agreed addresses or postcode, leaving the postie to figure it out.

  8. Denise Loving says

    I lived in nearby Pacific Grove in 1992 -- 1995. I worked part time at a food delivery service in Carmel-by-the-Sea while I was attending college: it was called Gourmet To Go and the owner had a fleet of Geo Metros for deliveries. This is a major tourist area, so there was a lot of motel/hotel deliveries of some very fine food. The lack of addresses in Carmel was a pain.

    One thing that struck me about Carmel was that a lot of tourists treated it like an amusement park, walking into streets without looking and assuming that of course cars will stop for them.

  9. Ridana says

    5) @Some Old Programmer:
    I too ran into that very thing in Sydney when I was there in the mid-80s, including the walk that turned out to be much, much longer than I expected from the numbers.

    But even worse was in Alice Springs, where after a few minutes of frustration, I realized that the numbers were not sequential. So if I was looking for 806, and was standing at 404, what I was looking for was just as likely to be two buildings down or across the street as it was 8 blocks away. I asked a clerk about this trying to get directions, and they told me that when they finally decided they needed numbers, everyone just got to pick the number they wanted. (‘:’) Also, when I told them what I was looking for, the previously friendly clerk suddenly became stiffly businesslike, bordering on outright hostility. I asked about that once I found the place, and apparently there was a long-running feud going on between the owners of the shops. 🙂

  10. KG says

    My home (rural UK) has two addresses (go figure): the one the Royal Mail uses, and the one the local council uses. -- EigenSprocketUK

    Such anomalies (they also exist in UK cities), can cause serious problems for the unfortunate residents -- notably, being unable to get credit, because the address listed by the credit reference agencies (which have huge and completely unaccountable power) may differ from Royal Mail’s, while most banks, mortgage providers etc. use Royal Mail’s PAF database.

  11. khms says

    the numbers on either side of the street had little relation to each other

    The same could be said about the place where I live, even though they follow a widely-used convention. Starting from where the street “starts”, odd numbers are on the left, even numbers on the right.

    The “problem” is that both sides alternate between apartment buildings (not very high rises, four to maybe eight stories) and row houses on a sort of private side street, except that where one side has apartment buildings the other has row houses, and vice versa. This means that the numbers rapidly get out of sync.

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