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New street address system will change our view of Abu Dhabi

In assigning addresses, are we creating versions of the past or building a future?

When I moved to Abu Dhabi a few years ago, no one in the US believed me when I said my new apartment didn’t have a street address.

“How will we mail things to you,” people asked. Setting aside the almost completely hypothetical nature of that question in this era of email and instant-messaging, I would tell them that regular mail could be sent to my post-office box at work, but package deliveries warranted a triangulation of landmarks: my office at NYUAD sits behind the ADIA tower and across Al Nasr Street from the Cultural Foundation, down the street from the Arab Bank building. We navigate prepositionally here: we are always looking across, near, beside, around, next to.

For Abu Dhabians, saying “I couldn’t find it” is a version of New Yorkers shrugging off a late arrival by saying “there was a subway problem”. Whether or not it’s true is irrelevant; it happens so often that we challenge the excuse at our peril.

That’s why I was surprised by my instant nostalgia when I read in The National that street addresses are coming to Abu Dhabi. Indeed there are small sections of the city that already have such newfangled technology: smart blue signs with clearly indicated numbers and names.

I understand the need for street addresses, especially as the city keeps expanding and landmarks disappear. (Do I turn at the third glassy skyscraper, or the fourth? Or the fifth?) And yet the presence of street addresses means that another little bit of the loveable – sometimes maddening – intimacy of Abu Dhabi from the oil era will be lost.

We don’t have an “old city” here, of course; Abu Dhabi is a new city, but as I look around I wonder if progress always necessitates a complete erasure of what came before.

Last summer, in New York, as I waited to meet a friend in front of the Starbucks at 7th Avenue and West 4th street, two German tourists came towards me holding their map like a divining rod. “Please,” they said, “where is The Village?”

A brief word about Manhattan geography: “Greenwich Village”, or “The Village” takes its name from the warren of streets – remnants of an old village – that were exempt from the street grid imposed on the rest of New York in 1811. The village’s narrow streets eventually became a neighbourhood haven for artists and bohemians, drawn by shared sensibilities and cheap rents (themselves now long-gone relics). For most of the 20th century, “The Village” was shorthand for creative, sometimes tumultuous free thinking; it was the self-proclaimed centre of progressivism and rebellion.

Now? Well, remember that I was standing in front of a Starbucks. Across the street was a CVS Pharmacy, a national chain. Around the corner you could shop at Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren. The only “bohemia” available on these streets now will cost you a pretty penny – and you can get the same bohemian look at any of those stores, anywhere in the world.

Pity my poor German tourists, searching for some ineffable bohemian flavour, and not the soy-latte-lite sort. They were, in fact, standing in the very heart of the village – but nowhere around them was “The Village” as it existed in their guidebook. The network of village streets still defies Manhattan’s grid, but otherwise, most of the neighbourhood’s quirks and peculiarities have been glossed over: the rebels can no longer afford the rents.

So I wonder about these impending Abu Dhabi street addresses, not because I long to spend more time circling a super block looking for that one store with the orange awning next to the other store that sells the curtains, but because I wonder about what happens when every place is like every other place. When all the bumps and inconveniences of the past get erased, what’s left? Do we simply appropriate a version of the past, like Marc Jacobs hawking “bohemian” haute couture on Bleeker Street?

Or do we reconstruct the past, as seems to be happening out on Saadiyat Beach. Past the stretches of sand where eventually there will be rows of luxury hotels, a cluster of new buildings has just gone up: a brand-new Heritage Village, complete with sand-coloured towers and arish (palm fronds) walls and surrounded by the orange-hued sand you find in Liwa. You can see this new Heritage for yourself: drive out towards the Monte Carlo Beach Club and the Heritage Village is right next door. I don’t know the exact street address.

Deborah Lindsay Williams (mannahattamamma.com) is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

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