Off the Post Offices
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
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
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
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
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
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.