“We’re going to stop them. They picked the wrong building in the wrong town”, geographer Gray Brechin firmly told a crowd of about 100 concerned locals who came to Berkeley’s Hillside Club on short notice Friday evening, July 20, 2012, to discuss what could be done to save Berkeley’s busy and historic Downtown Post Office building from closure and sale.
The next step, organizers said, is a rally in front of the Post Office at Allston Way and Milvia Street at 5:30 on Tuesday, July 24, followed by a presence at the Berkeley City Council meeting that evening.
On June 21 the United States Postal Service (USPS) said that it was going to sell the building, sending some customer services including bulk mail operations to a remote northwest Berkeley location. The announcement said the Post Office would also continue some “retail” operations in an as-yet-unidentified rental space in the Downtown.
No details about the sale were given at the time, but the news sparked widespread consternation and comment in the Berkeley community.
This Tuesday evening the Berkeley City Council will consider a resolution to oppose the sale, authored by Councilman Jesse Arreguin, who represents the Downtown, and Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. The proposal—currently on the Consent Calendar, as Agenda item #13—can be found on line here
It notes, among other concerns, that “the decision to close the Berkeley Main Post Office came as a surprise to many residents and was done without adequate outreach and input from city officials or from customers.” “The Post Office is…an important retail anchor in the Downtown and an incredible architectural and cultural resource…Given the lack of transparency and input from city officials and residents about the sale of the Berkeley Main Post Office and the impacts, alternate plans for mail service and the future of the historic building, it is critical that USPS not proceed with the sale of the Post office. USPS should engage with city officials and residents in discussions around the sale.”
At the Friday night event Brechin, a noted University of California geographer and expert on the New Deal and western development, presented a talk rich with illustration, history, and anecdote to put the planned sale in national context.
“This isn’t just happening in Berkeley, it’s happening all over the country”, Brechin said. “Don’t ever believe when the Postal Service says ‘The Internet made us do this.’ There’s still an enormous volume of mail, and no one else delivers ‘universal service’.”
“It’s really the cover for what’s going on which is asset stripping—OUR assets,” Brechin argued. “These public treasures are on the chopping block or on the auction block, and I know that the people of Berkeley will rise to occasion”, he said, to prolonged applause. “It’s still a valuable institution. Let’s save it. I think we can do it.”
He said that the situation is “akin to the great land grabs of the 19th century” when speculators became fantastically rich through acquiring and developing publicly owned western territory, timber, and other assets such as mineral resources, water rights, and agricultural land.
Now, Brechin said, “it’s happening in the core of our cities and it’s really audacious.” Instead of the Gold Rush, where those seeking instant riches took mineral wealth out of the ground, “the gold IS the ground right now.” That is, the land underneath publicly owned facilities.
He noted that throughout the country the older post offices often stand in valuable locations, a marquee example being New York City’s grand James Farley Post Office which covers a square city block in midtown Manhattan; how much would a site like that be worth to a developer if they could get it away from the government as “surplus” property, Brechin wondered?
Throughout California, post offices buildings are being sold and closed, or put on the market. As in the case of Berkeley, locals often don’t know until the last minute, or after the fact, what is going on. In Ukiah, the Post Office said it was closing the main downtown branch there “consolidating for ‘efficiency’ and taking the heart out of a walkable downtown.” Ukiah residents protested, but the branch is now closed and up for sale. In Vacaville, the post office building was sold, converted to a restaurant, which then closed, and now sits empty, Brechin said.
In Modesto the post office is “the core of what’s left of Modesto’s downtown, but they just threw it on the market.” The La Jolla post office is for sale, the Burlingame post office is being sold, San Rafael is endangered, and “there are a lot of post offices for sale in Southern California”, including Redlands, Venice, and Santa Monica.
California and the Gold Coast region of Connecticut seem to have the most activity of post office sales nationwide right now, Brechin noted. The planned sale in Santa Monica, Brechin said, “is giving the Post Office a real headache, because they’re nearly as activist as we’re going to become”, he said to renewed applause and laughter.
Who is doing the selling? The Postal Service Board of Governors has acquiesced, Brechin said, describing them as mainly people appointed by Republican presidents, who are “far less concerned with public service than with public assets.” “This is a classic case of putting the fox in the henhouse.”
The sales are reportedly being handled by CBRE, an international firm “owned by Richard Blum”, who is also a University of California Regent and husband of powerful California Senator Diane Feinstein. “They actually went after this contract aggressively”, Brechin said. He added that CBRE also, he’s been told, has a contract to advise the Postal Service on what buildings to sell, as well as manage the sales.
Postal worker David Welch, who spoke after Brechin, said that the criteria for branch closing seems to be “how much revenue does it generate”. The USPS is crippled, Welch said, by relatively recent Federal law requiring that 5.5 billion dollars be taken from its budget each year to pay benefits of future retirees 75 years into the future; no other government agency is subject to this requirement which “looks like (it) was a deliberate attempt to make it impossible to function as a business”, Welch said.
He also recalled the 1971 nationwide strike by postal workers and said, “the 1% doesn’t like the fact that the second largest employer in the country, the Postal Service, is the largest unionized employer.”
“There’s a lot of solidarity between the people who work in the post offices and the people in the community who want to save them”, he added.
The Postal Service itself is 237 years old, Brechin explained, older than the Constitution. The first Postmaster was Benjamin Franklin who, along with Thomas Jefferson, believed “you had to have free communication and universal service.” Post offices became vital centers of communities, large and small, across the nation, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries many stately edifices were built to house them.
Berkeley’s main Post Office was constructed in 1914. Unlike many older post office buildings, it’s “still virtually the same as it was in 1914”, without extensive remodeling inside or out. The building was designed by Oscar Wenderoth, and, in true Beaux Arts style, modeled on a fine neo-classical example, the Renaissance Ospedale degli Innocenti—or Foundling’s Hospital--in Florence, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.
At the same time that the Berkeley Post Office was being build, Brechin noted, the University of California campus, just two blocks to the east, was in the midst of its great Beaux Arts architectural era under the guidance of architect John Galen Howard. The Downtown Post Office was designed “to give this town a special post office that would harmonize with what was going up on the campus.”
Later, during the Great Depression, many of the already ornate structures including the Berkeley Post Office were further ornamented with public art paid for by the New Deal, and other new post office buildings were constructed. Brechin has focused some of his research in recent years on the art, and showed an array of images of murals, sculpture, and other furnishings of post offices that he has photographed and documented around the country.
The New Deal murals in particular were very important because they portrayed the dignity of labor and multicultural and community history. Construction workers, agricultural laborers, factory workers, and postmen themselves could see themselves and the history of their communities shown as large, or larger, than life in the new art.
In Berkeley, Brechin noted, there’s both New Deal mural by Suzanne Scheuer, inside the lobby of the Post Office, and a sculpture in the loggia by David Slivka, showing postmen delivering the mail. Carved in small letters on a string-bound package in the sculpture is this address: “From USA to All Mankind” to “Truth Abode on Freedom Road.”
After Brechin’s presentation there were questions, answers, and comments from the audience (I counted almost exactly 100 people in the room during the lecture). Some urged a national strategy, there was the suggestion of picketing Richard Blum’s San Francisco office, and a common lament that “very few people know what’s happening.”
“It’s very important to speak to our institutions, but public input isn’t happening,” Brechin observed.
Local activist Carol Denney, speaking from the audience, said “Don’t expect the politicians to save us; don’t expect the media to save us.” Turning to a speaker who had called for demonstrations, she said, “Those of you who are saying, why aren’t there demonstrations? Well there was one today, and you weren’t there.” Activists had leafleted on the steps of the Post Office the afternoon before the talk.
A petition calling on the City Council to approve the resolution against the sale circulated through the audience, quickly garnering pages of signature. Representatives of two groups—the Berkeley Historical Society, and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association—spoke from the audience, saying their boards of directors had voted to oppose the sale of the building.
(Disclosure: I’m the current president of the Berkeley Historical Society, and spoke against the closure at the July 20th meeting.)
For further reference:
Website of the Living New Deal project, based in Berkeley: