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The Fire Sale of the Post Office

By Gray Brechin PhD and project scholar, The Living New Deal, UC Berkeley

Who owns America’s post offices and their continent-spanning gallery of public art? The “as is” sale of the Bronx’s decaying central post office — and of so many other post offices recently sold or for sale — begs the question of Americans for whom those buildings were intended and for which they paid.

The once-noble lobby of the Bronx post office has filled with the cheesy clutter that choked New York City’s original Penn Station before wrecking balls leveled that elegant Victorian-era structure in the 1960s. At the Bronx post office, garish signs and obstructive furniture mute the dialogue between marble-framed murals by artists Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson, while neglect and a botched restoration renders some of their images virtually illegible.Mural_close_up_2.jpg

Chartered to “bind the nation together” by providing secure, efficient and reasonably priced service to all, the U.S. Postal Service is arguably the most democratic of all government services. Shahn and Bryson fittingly painted Walt Whitman at one end of the lobby over a service window. Pointing to the last stanza of his poem “As I Walk These Broad, Majestic Days,” the good gray poet reminds an attentive audience that “Democracy rests finally upon us.”

The Bronx palace was one of over 1,100 post offices erected and embellished during Franklin Roosevelt’s epic public works campaign that did much to extricate the nation from the Great Depression.

An avid stamp collector, Roosevelt took a keen interest in the postal service. He actively participated in the design of six post offices near his Hyde Park home in the Hudson Valley and he well understood that such buildings fulfill many functions beyond the commercial. They are at once centers of community and symbolic of government’s integrity — and he believed they should look it.

Excellent materials, construction, and design typify New Deal post offices, many of which were embellished with murals and sculptures specific to their locations and function.

At the National Gallery of Art’s dedication in 1941, FDR told his audience that New Deal art, unlike Old Masters, was not ancient, foreign, and sequestered but “painted by [Americans] in their own country, and painted about things that they know and look at often and have touched and loved.” Public art, he concluded, was of “the present life of all the living and creating peoples – all who make and build.”

Heroic images of those builders now struggle for visibility through dingy shellac and past the muddle in the Bronx lobby. Shahn and Bryson’s murals rank among the most important examples of post office art now imperiled by a nationwide fire sale of public assets. Few Americans are aware of what they are losing, and why.

Current USPS management insists that the shift to email has so curtailed its revenues that it must sell the properties it holds, but its fiscal crisis smells strongly of the “shock doctrine” of calculated austerity that has devastated so much of the world and is now coming home to America.

Having survived the telegraph, telephone, and faxes, the postal service could easily ride out the Internet’s inroads were it not hobbled by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.

Hastily passed by a lame-duck Republican Congress in 2006, the PAEA hamstrings the USPS by requiring it to pre-fund employee health benefits for 75 years into the future within just a decade while at the same time barring it from offering “non-postal” services that could compete with the private sector. The $5.5 billion drag the PAEA annually imposes on the USPS accounts for most of its well-publicized deficit.

The PAEA is at once accomplishing a long-stated aim of conservative think tanks and the Republican Party to privatize the 239-year old service while throwing a windfall of public property onto the market from which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, is profiting. Those properties include hundreds of architecturally distinguished buildings, many containing unique works of art. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named America’s pre-war post offices among its most endangered treasures.

Nowhere have citizens and their representatives resisted more vociferously than in the Bronx and in Berkeley, California, whose century-old downtown post office is also on the block.

Asserting that the USPS has largely ignored environmental and preservation law, the Berkeley-based National Post Office Collaborate blocked the sale of the Stamford, Connecticut post office in federal court. Berkeley Rep. Barbara Lee and Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano directed the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation to investigate the sales. In April, the ACHP issued a report to Congress sharply critical of the USPS stewardship of its historic and artistic properties.

The auto-liquidation of the USPS could easily be halted if it offered more rather than fewer services. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has joined others recommending that it revive the postal banking system scrapped by Congress in 1966. Postal banking would serve millions of currently unbanked Americans while generating ongoing revenue for the USPS.

America’s historic post offices, and the public services for which they were built, could be saved if current management, Congress and President Barack Obama had the will to do so.

Far more than utilitarian containers for conducting business, they are our piazzas — the places we meet one another and in doing so see our landscapes, history, work, and ourselves reflected back from their walls. They could be so much more than they are. Like the democracy they were built to embody, the responsibility to save them rests finally upon us.

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Congress members Barbara Lee and Jose Serrano come through...again!

Last week. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) spoke at the full committee mark-up of the Financial Services Appropriations Bill. She voiced her strong support of the recommendations included in the OIG and ACHP reports related to the USPS’s sale of historic post offices. The language that was included is copied below and is the result of close work with Ranking Member Jose Serrano (D-NY):

"The Committee appreciates the work of the Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) in reviewing the Postal Service’s relocation and disposal process for historic properties. The Committee believes the Postal Service should refrain from the relocation of services from historic post offices, and should suspend the sale of any historic post office until it is has implemented the recommendations of the OIG and ACHP.

Title 39 of the U.S.  Code requires the Postal Service to provide the public with notice prior to closing or consolidating a post office. The Committee understands that it is the Postal Service’s policy to inform Member of Congress’ district and Washington, D.C. offices when  the public receives notice. The Committee directs the Postal Service keep Members of Congress informed of Postal Service activities impacting their constituents and expects the Postal Service to ensure that Members of Congress are appropriately informed simultaneously or prior to all public notices."

In a letter of response to the ACHP report, Tom Samra (USPS Director of Facilities), discounted the ACHP recommendations citing that the USPS was conforming to required procedures relative to the disposition of historic properties.  You can read his letter here.

The NPOC has prepared a response to Mr. Samra's letter with specific reference that discount his claims.  (Read our response here.)

You can help save our historic post offices.  Reach out to your Congress member or Senator and request that the support the recommendations of the ACHP and OIG. We can only preserve these important American assets through our judicial system and through legislative pressure.  Donate to the NPOC to help us continue to fund our fight through the court system!

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YOU can help save our historic post offices!!

American art and architecture tell the rich story of the triumphs and tribulations of our great nation.  Many of these historic buildings and landmarks are protected by Federal Law. 

Yet, in large and small towns all over America, some of our treasures are being ripped from the American landscape…forever.  Our Historic Post Offices 

From New York to Minnesota, Texas to California post office buildings that are part of our American legacy are being given away.  And it is proceeding at lightning speed.  They are being sold with minimal restrictions on development and they are being privatized, abandoned and allowed to decay or destroyed. It is time to stand up and stop this Great American giveaway!!

These impressive buildings were built to show the American people that they were important to their federal government.  In large cities and small towns post office buildings are often located at the center. Built to serve the whole community - people, businesses, city governments and schools.  No wonder developers are swooping in… 

Many of these post office buildings include art from our finest New Deal artists. Our taxpayer dollars paid for this art that shows the personality and heritage of our communities…Art that chronicles our journey…Art to inform and enrich this generation and every generation yet to come.  Art that belongs to the people that is part of a public trust.

And our Post Offices represent more.  Benjamin Franklin started the postal service in 1773 and it is written into our constitution.  It is not supposed to be a private business for profit.  Today, there is no cheaper way to send a parcel or letter. The Post Office made us proud as it was the first to welcome veterans, women and minorities into the workforce to serve the public and it paid them good wages.

It is not too late. Civic leaders, artists, historians, and citizens are rallying to put a halt to this engine of destruction. While over 70 of our historic Post Offices have been sold and are no longer accessible to the public, there are many to be saved.

We must all work in our communities to keep our American landscape vital.  We must think about creating new public/private uses for our post offices, revitalizing our downtowns, and celebrating the Post Office's valuable services that are part of American life.  And we must ask ourselves:  What America do you want to keep for yourself, your children and your grandchildren?

You can make a difference! Act now to build the future American Landscape, one that includes our historic Post Offices.  Demand that revitalization involve rethinking the role of the Post Office buildings, challenge leaders to innovate new ways to live with the present while embracing history.

Donate to the National Post Office Collaborate.  Your contribution will help us take legal action to stop the give-away, fund community awareness, foster public/private partnerships and work with historic preservation groups. 

Historic Post Offices have long been owned by the American people and were continuously maintained for our generation.  Tell the story of YOUR Post Office.  Appreciate the art and history and promote its story.  It's our turn to save these buildings for generations to come.  Help us in our fight to ensure that these buildings continue to grace our American Landscape.

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The Stamford Win - and why it is significant

On October 28, 2013, Judge Arterton of the United States District Court in Connecticut issued a 39-page ruling in favor of the National Post Office Collaborate’s complaint against the USPS sale of the historic Stamford Connecticut Post Office to a local developer.

The preliminary injunction could have far reaching implications in our battle to save our historic post offices and keep them open to the public.  The USPS is not challenging the charges that they must comply with NHPA (National Historic Preservation Act) procedures and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) requirements regarding the proposed Stamford sale.  This could change the way properties are valued and make the USPS take a second look at all the post office sales because NEPA requires that a potential change of “use” and its environmental impacts be considered before a transaction is concluded.

It is a battle “won” in our bigger war to ensure that our historic post offices stay open and available to the public that paid for and rightfully own them .  But we need your help to continue achieving these “wins” through future litigation and constant vigilance of USPS activities. 

Please consider a donation, “like us” on Facebook, and “tweet” on Twitter.  We need a growing enlistment in our army as our battle will be long – but we will persevere with support from all of you! 

Help us save our historic post offices and keep them open!

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