The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #264: Where The Streets Have No Name by U2 (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #264: Where the Streets Have No Name by U2.

“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts…Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all.”

– Jane Jacobs

One of the world’s foremost authorities on Urban Planning and the idea of creating livable cities.

When you think about any city or town, there are some truths that can be generalized. For example, in every city of any size at all, there are distinct socio-economic pockets. There are “rich” parts of town and there are “poor” parts of town. There are industrialized zones within a town and there are spots set aside for social/cultural and environmental reasons such as parkland. Urban Planning is concerned with fitting all of the various puzzle pieces in a way that makes that town or city function efficiently with regard to everything from the flow of movement, to waste disposal, to the safety of neighbourhoods and much, much more. If you have never stopped to actually study the nature of your own community and how it functions as a living entity….perhaps you should. For there are clues hiding in plain sight that help explain why your community is how it is.

For those of us in the middle class and richer, our communities are structured in ways that serve and protect our interests. If you are labelled as being in a lower socio-economic class then, the way your community is structured often works against you. The sad thing about that statement (aside from the fact that it is true) is that most of the rules that are used that place those in poverty at a disadvantage are done so purposefully. Let me give you two simple examples.

First of all, let’s talk about the bus. One of the hallmarks of a well-functioning city or town is the ability of people to freely and efficiently move about. However, not everyone within a town or city wants all manner of people moving freely around their property or neighbourhood. Some neighbourhoods are deemed to be “exclusive” by those who live there. If you look carefully at the local transit routes for the town or city where you live, try to find bus routes that go directly into the wealthiest neighbourhoods or enclaves. My guess is that the bus doesn’t stop often in gated communities or by your castle on the hill. Why is that? It is a systemically-entrenched way of restricting the full flow of movement by people in a community. In short, the politics of bus routes is a subtle, formalized way of segregation. It helps keep wealthy neighbourhoods free from the gawking eyes of the poor. If you can’t afford a car then, by all means, travel by bus but, if you do, you will end up staying in your “own part” of town by default.

Secondly, let’s talk about trees. Aside from the environmentally-friendly benefit to communities to having lots of trees present, trees help cool down our homes and streets because of the shade they provide. The planting and maintaining of trees is a part of many City and Town Urban development plans. However, the next time you are out and about, take note of those places where the canopy is densest and thus, the area below is coolest and most comfortable. Chances are good that the lushest of tree-lined streets reside in neighbourhoods where the buses don’t tend to run. It is not by fluke that middle and upper class neighbourhoods tend to, also, have many mature trees in their areas. It is also, not by fluke that many areas where people on Social Assistance live end up being housing complexes surrounded by concrete. Access to something as simple as shade says a lot about things like socio-economic status, race and so much more.

In a free and caring society, purposeful, systemic means should be applied to help harmonize our societies and, as Jane Jacobs said off of the top, bring people together. But, instead, there are many subtle factors at work that help fuel divisiveness. Trees and bus routes are small examples of the insidious nature of how things really work. There are many more obvious examples such as how neighbourhoods are zoned for development (industrial vs. residential) and how that affects property value and re-sale values and so on.

Growing up in Ireland, the members of U2 had a front-row seat to how the systemic nature of urban planning helped to perpetuate the cycles of violence and hatred and bigotry that characterized life at the time. Your street address in Northern Ireland told people almost everything they needed to know about you (without having to bother to actually get to know you as a person). Your address indicated whether you were a Catholic or a Protestant. That indicated whether you supported independence or a political union with England. Your address fuelled speculation as to whether you were an I.R.A. supporter or a member of The Orange March. Divisions were entrenched by geography. And U2 lead singer, Bono, was fed up with it.

How bad things really were came home to him in the mid-1980s when he and his wife did some missionary work in the middle of Africa. In the regions in which they helped, there were no geographic distinctions within a group or tribe. Those being helped were all viewed as one community, all wishing to move forward and develop their homes and neighbourhoods together. In Africa, where Bono was, the infra-structure needed to have networks of roads and streets often didn’t exist. So, the idea came to him of how much better the world might be if, in fact, the streets had no names and nobody judged you based upon your home address. Wouldn’t it be better, Bono postulated, if the world’s citizens treated each other as individual members of a larger collective? What if we all simply lived as one? While that sentiment might strike you as a bit naive, it was, none-the-less, the inspiration for one of U2’s most successful songs ever. “Where the Streets Have No Name” found its’ way on to an album called, “The Joshua Tree” and helped sales to reach well into the millions worldwide.

The video for this song won the Grammy Award for “Video of the Year” for its “live” performance atop a store in downtown Los Angeles. When you listen to the song, note how Bono starts off by singing about his frustrations with how judgemental people are based on where you live in Ireland. He, then, transitions to the beauty of his African experience where the streets, quite literally, had no name and it mattered not one whit where you came from in the village, everyone was treated as one.

By Bono’s own admission, “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a rather simple song about a rather grand idea. You don’t have to take his word for it or mine that institutionalized discrimination exists within the rules used to design and organize most communities in the world. Look at your own town and focus on are there rich parts of town and poor parts of town? Are there dangerous areas and safer areas? Where are these areas in relation to each other? Do the buses go equally to all neighbourhoods or are some left out by design? Where are the trees located? If you are walking down a tree-lined street, what do the property values there tend to be like? The game appears to be rigged, whether we like to admit it or not. “Where The Streets Have No Name” speaks to this ingrained sense of inequity. Listen and learn and then, go look around your own world and see if it isn’t true where you live. It sure is in my hometown.

My street is tree-lined.

My yard is shaded.

The bus does not run past my house.

That is really all you need to know about the quality of my life. It shouldn’t be that way but, unfortunately, it is.

The link to the video for the song, Where The Streets Have No name” by U2, can be found here.

The link to the official website for U2, can be found here.

The link to an article about trees and social inequality in our cities and towns can be found here. The article is from the magazine, “Scientific American”.

Thanks to KEXP for supporting great music that promotes great ideas. The link to their website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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