The Fire Sale of the Post Offices

In an earlier time, U.S. post offices were more than just places to mail letters. They were noble structures, symbols of democracy, stone-and-mortar testimony to the value of community. But many are now neglected and up for sale, laments Gray Brechin.

By Gray Brechin

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.

One of 13 murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson.

One of 13 murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson.

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.

Gray Brechin is a writer and historian based in Berkeley, California.

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9 comments on “The Fire Sale of the Post Offices

  1. Joe Tedesky on said:

    I’ll go out on a limb here, since my lack of knowledge may show. Any time this subject comes up concerning the shutting down of our Post Office, I chalk it off to more privatizing and union busting. Am I wrong?

    • Agreed. But the “union busting” now takes the form of destroying the collective conscious of the working class and all the public institutions that were designed to serve the collective, public good. Post offices are iconic representations of the public sector that was originally intended to serve everyone at affordable prices. Specifically, in this article, the Postal Service is a government institution that has the power to offer a public banking option which would enable everyone, even the poorest people, to have affordable, non-predatory banking services; thus, the banking industry wants the post office gone. Also, the ultra-rich owners of the private mail and parcel delivery services, such UPS and Fedex, want Congress to systematically disempower and eliminate the postal service because they consider it to be a barrier to their plans for corporate oligopoly control of mail and parcel delivery. These corporate predators are working with co-conspirators in Congress; for example, according to articles outside of the mainstream media, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and her husband own a business that is obtaining postal properties either free or at giveaway prices available only to government insiders.

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      Jacob…You make sense. Maybe by your standard of thinking (which I think I agree with) I am sure that the postal service would not be a big campaign contributor. Whereas, large companies may contributor as much as they like to gain influence among the political class. If one were to subscribe to what I have posted here, then no wonder Feinstein and Feinstein hubby are gaining this portfolio of real estate you mention here. I wouldn’t even mind all that if one could prove how this may benefit the citizen commons. Thanks for your comments. J.T.

  2. As for “… providing secure, efficient and reasonably priced service to all, …” this is a lop-sided argument. While it is ok to lament the dilapidation of post offices that were once decorated with irreplaceable art (which I wasn’t aware of) the whole article tells me they were some kind of Stalinist Moscow metro system to impress the public. Secure mailing can be had from any vendor if the market was not closed off in favor of a legendarily unreliable service, as the US Postal Services, the European state-owned services and telecoms and e.g. Amtrak and European rail systems stand for. If eating was even more important than mailing things – why weren’t the bakeries nationalized (and maybe “decorated”) first? Because, like in China and the Soviet Union, mass starvation would have been the result. While i agree it to be a travesty that “the people” first pay for public enterprises with their taxes to have them set up, then once again when they become unsustainable by way of “buying them back” through privatization, then a third time when entrepreneurs turn them around and now pay taxes (which are part and parcel of the prices “the people” pay – not the enterprise. If an enterprise had to pay the taxes and not pass them on, there would be no enterprise. All else is propaganda. But let me ask one question: if these office buildings were already in private hands, housing these works of art and themselves being architectonic landmarks, would a private owner be allowed to let them decay? No way, unlike the state, this private owner would be burdened with a restoration order in the name of preservation of the national heritage. It is the state, always, with its double standards, that makes all this such am mess!

  3. Fred 'The Anti-Post' Guy on said:

    I am so glad to see the demise of the USPS. A rip-off operation from start to finish with little oversight. A bloated hierarchy of leeches on the system feeling entitled to life-long jobs while not caring for the customer. Tyrannical in their approach to the customer, many of us dreaded having to visit the post office. Long lines, rude service, archaic paperwork, thank the lord for email and the internet. I am more than happy to lose a few murals to remove this blight on the American system. R.I.P., no tears here.

    • rip off? sending a letter for .44, or whatever it is now? what else can you even do with 44¢ let alone have hand-delivered to someone’s home or office anywhere in the US. what an odd response. sorta like wrecking your car because it got dirty.

  4. Val Nostdahl member of USPS widows on face book on said:

    The United States Postal Office was created in 1775 by continental congress members for the communication to win the revolutionary war, it predates the forming of the Nation and the Constitution, and is the only quasi-governmental service listed as part of congressional duties to build not destroy in the constitution. For background on the USPO the book the post office, its past record, it present condition and its potential for the new world era by John Calhoon Roper , first assistant post master general, 1913-1917 can be found on line free to read amazon.com search inside this book or google free books. This was the era of collective bargaining was formed due to the fact postal workers marched in mass to protest the unsafe unhealthy working conditions of the post office. In 1935 the right to unionize was passed and the postal workers were one of the first to unionize and help get the fair labor standards act passed, child labor laws protection passed, wages and benefits, hours, and pensions , social security and medical for old age. Up until 1970 the Post Office was controlled by congress for any wage increase, and therefore at that time congress was keeping them well below the standard of living wages in the private sector, many postal workers were working 3 jobs or on welfare while working at the post office. A national strike happened at that time in 1970, in which they effectively shut down the mails and even the national guard could not do their jobs. The USPO then was changed to the USPS, and the no strike law became federal law for postal union employees however collective bargaining was re enforced. In 2000, 2001, postal employees were made to pay in extra to their retirement accounts known as FERS or Federal employee retirement account and CSRS or Civil Service Retirement System , they were thanked for their sacrifice by the President and both sides of Congress. So while others got tax cut checks in the mail they got a tax increase. The tax increase was removed from the Presidents budget in 2002 . Then new legislation was began on the CSRS in 2003, cbo had a letter to the honorable Jim Nussle speaking of lowering the payments by the USPS in to the account dated January 27, 2003. This is followed by the Envelope Mailing Association meeting with the Presidents Commission on Postal Studies, February 12, 2003, in which the overpayment of CSRS and FERS they say should be recognized legally by Congress to lower the payments into the retirement accounts. Getting an opinion varies on the amounts from Office of personal management or OPM of 71 billion over payment in to CSRS and from GAO or the Government Accounting Office of 101.3 billion due to military pension responsibility not being that of the USPS but of the US Treasury Department , so then ( USPS went further and met with the federal trade commission on August 6, 2007 and the amount in CSRS was stated to be 140 billion ) so then because of the overpayment the amount the USPS was to be lowered from 32 billion to 5 billion, And that 5 billion was to be paid over 40 years by intra agency transfer ( not unlike direct deposit ) and have no effect on the USPS, office, facilities, workers, federal budget ,or federal budget scoring, However due to lobby efforts by private corporations groups known as ALEC/Koch Cabal ( see Alec/Koch cabal pursuing the privatization of USPS for Ups and FedEx, Bob Sloan, Vltp.net , April 2012) who had lobbied from 1980 on to destroy the post office, the CBO then stepped in know as the Congressional Budget Office, and said if the USPS was to receive a lower rate of payment they might not raise stamp rates. So then making a deal with the Post Master General in order for him to get a raise and also a hefty retirement ( 72 thousand more a year , and doubling his pay and benefits to twice what the President makes in a year and getting a retirement package of 5.5 million ) he did not raise stamp rates as the CBO desired for 3 years, At that point that is considered a budget crisis since the rate of stamp meant a deficit of 5 to 10 billion and then eventually would lead to a 47 billion dollar loss. So passing the Postal Accountability and Enhancement act by voice vote congress instead of letting the post office pay 5 billion over 40 years, made it pay in 5 billion a year for over 10 years prefunding they said a d 3rd retirement and health benefit 75 years in to the future for postal employees not born or working so that they could make up the 47 billion dollar deficit by the stamp rates not raised, and basically start the road to privatization for corporations to get more of the profits that postal workers help to have the postal office earn, and eventually cut up the paea account for other corporate benefit. Meanwhile the postmaster general began to close post offices, sell them off for congressional benefits of a spouse of congress member and cut staffing by non replacement of retirees or attrition so postal workers would do more for less and get injured for die before they retire. So far there have been at least 52 deaths since 2010 of postal workers, and another 847 directly or indirectly related to the effect of the PAEA on the postal workers . This includes violation of the fair labor standards law due to the PAEA. The ongoing assault on the USPS , democracy and the workers of the USPS started in 2006 and continues to day as a political too, The position of letter carriers in currently the most dangerous job in America . USPS widows is on face book as is community and postal workers united along with APWU and NALC and Napus, , as well as http://www.savethepostoffice.com

  5. Educational reading all this about post offices being destroyed in the US.
    Nobody says a peep about the same destroying of post offices around the world. Particularly in the so called developed world.
    Neither does anyone seem to understand that this is all part of the New World Order now shortened to New World a fascist capitalist endeavor started by a former German Nazi Waffen SS officer by the name of: Bernhard Leopold Friedrich Eberhard Julius Kurt Karl Gottfried Peter Prinz zur Lippe-Biesterfeld; aka Prince Bernard of the Netherlands after he conned Princes Juliana in to marry him to get away from his penniless former aristocratic family in Hitler Duitsland.
    f.f. Spending the war in England during which he came in contact with John D. Rockefeller and after the war teamed up with him in 1954 to start the Bilderberg enclave to start laying the groundwork for the New World Order. Something during the past fifty years everybody laughed about while the John D. / Prince Bernard clique steadily kept pushing their cart forward to the point that now with Obama in the lead 60-years later it is dictating or else the citizens of the world’s lives by the Jinni being out of the bottle and not able to get it back in the bottle. Don’t ever kid yourself that you will be able to get it back in the bottle. Take a serious in-depth look around you, Unions are run by them. Salaries being halved. Pensions which people paid for with their own hard work are being trashed. Infrastructure is falling down around your ankles on the way up to your nees. Public Hospitals are being closed one after the other.Public utilities (water, gas, electricy, public transport, the list goess on) being privatized. No need to continue listing all because the end of it not yet in sight.

  6. ralph kramden on said:

    try digging a bit deeper on this one. what is revealed behind this selling of assets on
    the cheap is real estate mogul richard c. blum, aka, senator diane feinsteins’ husband. its corruption at its finest, and of course legal under the law.