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ROBERT PRICE: Every building ought to have an address I can see

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The latest addition to Bitwise’s downtown facade is surely its most useful. Why can’t every business do this, asks columnist Robert Price.

Tell me this doesn’t make you crazy too.

You’re driving down a six-lane boulevard looking for a business that’s camouflaged somewhere in a cluster of commercial buildings. The red dart on your smartphone’s GPS tells you you’re close — but that’s the only evidence you have because the last visible street address you could find was three blocks back.

That’s a frequent source of irritation for me and maybe for you: Looking for business addresses and not finding them. Prominently visible addresses are absurdly rare. Whether the mystery objective is a private home or, much more often, a commercial building with no outwardly identifying names or numbers, digits that denote destinations are in too short a supply.

I was reminded of this Friday when I spotted an exception to this long-running trend: Bitwise Industries, the Fresno-based workspace-sharing software developer and academy, is almost ready to open its Bakersfield headquarters on 18th Street. And, in what looks like one of the building’s final exterior touches, they’ve added a black metal address sign high on the northeast corner of the building: 1701.

The Bakersfield Fire Department was never going to have any trouble locating the Bitwise building — not with its Peter Max-inspired sidewalk-to-roof mural, its yearlong anticipatory buildup and its unmistakable across-the-street neighbor, the landmark Padre Hotel. But we — or at least I — appreciate the posted address just the same.

Bitwise’s willingness to identify itself in this way ought to be common practice. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it ought to be required — not just for the benefit of people like me, but for first responders. If you’re bothered by drivers who lack the sense to get out of the way of howling ambulances as much as I am, you ought to be at least a little bothered by invisible or missing addresses, too.

This suggestion isn’t out of left field. The state of Florida requires houses and commercial buildings to have visible addresses; local jurisdictions in that state set their own parameters, such as the size and position of numbers. Several U.S. cities, including Austin, Texas, and Grand Rapids, Mich., have their own address-visibility ordinances. Many cities impose fines and may require violators to pay court costs.

Civilized humans have understood the value of the orderly identification of housing and other buildings for at least half a millennium and, depending on how you define the practice, probably a lot longer. The first house-numbering system, limited to one specific section of Paris, dates to 1512. In the 1720s, the British started engraving house numbers into semicircular windows, or fanlights, in their front doors. In 1768, by order of King Louis XV, house numbers became mandatory in France — primarily to assist tax collectors and keep track of troops quartered in civilian homes. By the end of the century, the practice was common across Europe.

By the time Boston (1879) and Chicago (1895) led this country’s belated introduction of orderly address systems, its purpose had evolved to what it is today: primarily to assist mail delivery and first responders.

Somewhere along the way, though, attaching numbers to buildings in plainly visible ways ceased to be common practice, at least in commercial settings, leaving postal carriers and firefighters to rely on other methods of finding people and their mailboxes.

As a result, first responders sometimes have to figure things out on their own. In most cities and towns, they tend to know their areas of operation pretty well, but when the precise location of an emergency situation isn’t clear and addresses aren’t clearly marked, they must rely on other clues: the crew’s familiarity with an area, the reporting party’s ability to wait near the street to flag them down, or a witness’s sufficiently detailed description of the location.

The Bakersfield Fire Department, like many agencies, has maps of most apartment buildings within its jurisdiction; firefighters sometimes explore unfamiliar ones just to get a feel for the layout. City firefighters also have maps in their trucks that break the city down by the hundred-block, and engineers use them to narrow down the possible location of an incident and the best route to get there.

Much of that guesswork could be avoided, though, if property owners were simply required to put reasonably visible numbers on their buildings.

Some might call a requirement like this another example of government overreach, and I suppose one could see it that way. But it’s not much more of an overreach than the requirement that drivers get their cars out of the way of honking fire trucks and wailing police cruisers.

Not only would such a requirement inevitably save lives, it would reduce the number of people driving too slowly in the right-hand lane, craning their necks in search of an address they can’t find. And we’ve all been stuck driving behind that guy.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here on Sundays; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at robertprice@kget.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz.

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