Losing Post Offices and Storefronts, and How We Respond

In the spring 2010 issue of Shelterforce, Miriam Axel-Lute wrote about the challenges local post offices face amid technological and budgetary challenges and the subsequent effects on low-income communities, or […]

In the spring 2010 issue of Shelterforce, Miriam Axel-Lute wrote about the challenges local post offices face amid technological and budgetary challenges and the subsequent effects on low-income communities, or communities where residents have limited access. In June 2009, the United States Postal Service began looking at a list of 3,300 branches — all potential candidates for elimination. By January 2010, that list had dwindled to an ominous 162. Axel-Lute quotes Denise Diaz of Central Florida Jobs With Justice, which protested against the potential closing of five post office stations in the Orlando area:

“It was clear that these were predominately in low- to moderate-income communities, plus one on the outskirts of downtown in the Vietnamese community with a lot of small businesses. It would have been a huge loss, particularly for seniors, small businesses, and people who don’t have a car. Some people would have had to go over six miles. [For some], if you were to look up your nearest postal station — those three [of the ones on the study list] would have been your options. They were going to wipe out a whole series of communities.”

According to the article, “The agency ended the first half of its fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2009, to March 31, 2010) with a net loss of $1.9 billion, and its mail volume for 2010 is projected to be 10 billion pieces fewer than the previous year.”

These statistics prove to be foreboding not only in urban areas, but also in rural areas, where these post offices often represent outposts; a means of connectivity in communities that are physically isolated. National Public Radio recently conducted a profile on a post office in the West Virginia mountain community of Hacker Valley, where the the post office, though not “officially closed,” has been out of service since summer 2009.

That post office, the report indicates, is an important community resource in that many residents, wary of banks, rely on it to send out payments:

The traditional economy of Hacker Valley depends to a large part on postal money orders. You pay cash for a money order to be sent away, and you get a written receipt. “Many people here don’t trust banks,” says Donna Boggs, a former part-time postal employee. “They order their shoes from catalogs, they order clothes, they order books, they do all their seed orders and they do it all with money orders.”

The next nearest post office is a 20-mile round-trip drive. For daily users of the old Hacker Valley post office, according to the article, they now have to “hire someone to drive them if they have a money order to buy or a package to mail.”

In her piece, Axel-Lute concludes that if the government is truly committed to addressing the crisis at the USPS, then it should “be brought into the administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, in which the EPA, DOT, and HUD are working together to coordinate their investments to support existing communities that are ‘healthy, safe, and walkable’ and enhance economic competitiveness through ‘reliable and timely access to services.’”

With this in mind, I looked at a photo essay sidebar to the NPR piece that looked at what has been done with old post offices. There, we find innovative adaptive reuse of old post offices (hotels, restaurants, municipal buildings, housing) in places like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. But, really, will that old Hacker Valley post office ever be turned into the Apple Store (as was the case in New York’s SoHo) that the mountain region has been clamoring for? Probably not.

At Shelterforce, we’ve begun to look at ways communities are handling vacant space—not only residential, but commercial as well. As nature abhors a vacuum, we’ve seen communities fill in vacancies with community spaces, community gardens, and public art installations, but those are often piecemeal treatments to a larger scale issue. What about community land trusts, which are emerging as real opportunities to establish permanently affordable housing, as entities to establish community-based commerce? This is something we’re seeing in New Orleans’s Crescent City Urban Land Conservancy, though there are still challenges facing that initiative.

How is community development addressing the issue of vacant commercial space? There are myriad CDCs playing their part. What’s the strategy?

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