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Hands Off the Post Offices

I guess I’m going to have to take a three-hour bus ride to mail a package to my grandkids.” “How will I run my business without my PO box around the corner?” “I went to the Hudson Avenue post office and the line took forever! I can’t do that all the time.”

Yes. The U.S. Postal Service is short on cash (recession. did you hear?), and considering closing up to 400 branches and stations to cut costs. In the Capital Region, the branch in Scotia, and Albany’s Delaware Avenue, South Allen Street, and Broadway-North Albany stations are on the list.

It seems like a small thing in one way, in the midst of other major fights happening at the federal level. But for the neighborhoods facing the loss of a branch—or at least many of them—it’s an ironic and short-sighted move at a time when so much federal money is going into boosting a sagging economy, stabilizing residential neighborhoods, and promoting walkable mixed-used communities.

No one doubts that the USPS is struggling financially. Unlike, say, AIG or Citigroup, it’s still doggedly adhering to its charge from Congress to operate unsubsidized. In fact, it’s mission is even harder than that: On top of trying to “live within its means” in the middle of a recession and rapid technological change, it’s also dealing with the legacy of some Bush II accounting rules that forced it to suddenly funnel billions of dollars into a trust fund that will fund the health benefits of future retirees—something no private business, or even other branch of government has to do. But it’s then supposed to compete unsubsidized anyway with private businesses that also don’t have to deliver mail to everyone every day if they don’t want to. Talk about a handicap. (There are some bills in Congress designed to ameliorate, though not remove, this burden.)

If we as a country continue to hold the postal service to standards to which we hold no other provider of vital infrastructure and services, such that we are forced to accept closures of branches that are well-used and well-loved, what will we lose? Let’s quickly review the ways in which closing a post office branch in a walkable, mixed-income, urban neighborhood is a bad idea:

First, it leaves many people without access to crucial services. Yes, there are other post offices in the city, and you can buy stamps at the grocery store now, but access is a relative thing. In the Delaware Avenue neighborhood, for example, there is a high proportion of people without cars. Of the four census tracts surrounding the branch, three have carless rates much higher than the city average (which is of course higher than that of surrounding burbs), one nearly hitting 40 percent. This includes the poor, many elderly, new immigrants and refugees, and quite a few visually impaired. Making their way to a more distant post office can be a significant challenge, and yet services like certified mail, PO boxes during times of housing instability, money orders, and packages to and from family and friends are not luxuries.

Second, it removes a crucial piece of economic infrastructure. Post office branches in neighborhoods like these are used heavily by local businesses, who maintain PO boxes there and use them for all sorts of shipping needs. They are also used heavily by work-at-home and self-employed people—of whom there are distinctly more in recent months, not to mention those who are making ends meet with some after-the-first-job eBay selling. Diverting more of these businesspeople’s energy and time and expense to driving to a distant post office reduces their productivity, increases traffic, and makes the very sustainable neighborhoods we’re looking to support less attractive. As Delaware Avenue post office supporter Laura Welles puts it, “neighborhood post offices are too essential to fail.”

Meanwhile, people who chose to move into the Delaware Avenue neighborhood are likely to rattle off a list of amenities they can walk to as part of their decision, and the post office branch tends to be high on it. Along with the service it provides, it is, like a library or a coffee shop, a physical space where people run into each other and feel connected as neighbors. We tend to invest a lot of energy and resources to create such spaces.

The postal service is emphatic that they don’t want to reduce access for their customers. They also say that they really will take public input into account, that no decisions are made yet, and that being on the list of 400-plus is not a death sentence.

If that’s true, Delaware’s station at least should be in good shape: Neighborhood leaders say they’ve never had a cause that was as easy to gather support for than keeping their post office open.

But it shouldn’t come down to each neighborhood fighting to be the one that doesn’t lose. As the postal service decides how to modernize and become more efficient and adapt to the changing times, all of which it should keep doing, that conversation should be had with the big picture in mind: As a nation, if we are investing in our neighborhoods—in roads, schools, libraries, homes, small businesses, effective social services, transit—how do we make sure those investments are working together toward a larger goal? Not, I’d argue, by building with one hand and tearing down with the other.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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