April 24, 2015
BERKELEY — Consider some of Berkeley’s signature protests. Legions of students sitting in for free speech. Citizen activists fighting to keep People’s Park for the people. Tree-sitters giving voice to a grove of whispering oaks outside Memorial Stadium.
Another one — with the requisite components of activism, occupation and principled outrage — has been raging quietly at the corner of Milvia Street and Allston Way for two years. This time the cause is …
A post office?
You bet your forever stamps. Specifically, the target is the century-old downtown Berkeley post office, which the U.S. Postal Service announced in 2012 would be one of approximately 200 facilities nationwide sold as a cost-cutting measure. After relocating some of the Berkeley building’s traditional functions, the post office uses just a fraction of the huge space today.
Artwork from 1937 adorns a wall at the Berkeley Post Office in downtown Berkeley on April 15, 2015. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)
In 2013, Mike Wilson, a self-described “remodeling carpenter,” formed the Berkeley Post Office Defenders, a group of about a dozen protesters, which works in support of, though not in conjunction with, another group called Save The Berkeley Post Office. On Nov. 1, 2014, with the USPS in negotiations with a prospective developer for the Berkeley property, Wilson pitched a tent outside the building. Two to three Defenders have manned it day and night since.
“These kinds of buildings,” Wilson said of the 1914 structure, “are the closest things democracy has to a church.”
“I find myself asking,” said Carol Wolfley, a fellow Defender, ” ‘Do I really care about the post office? Aren’t there more important things going on?’ ”
In the next breath, Wolfley, echoing other Defenders, steadfastly insists the Berkeley post office — despite being buffeted by the ease and immediacy of email and private parcel competitors such as FedEx and UPS — stands for something that would be missed if it were gone.
It’s a story best told from the beginning.
“It wasn’t like they just threw up a building,” said Brian Turner, an attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The trust is facilitating public participation in the sale of the post offices, many of them New Deal-era buildings, that the USPS seeks to offload. “They got some of the most expensive materials. They modeled it after Foundling Hospital in Florence. There was a lot of intent there beyond delivery of mail. It was intended to inspire.”
The trust and city last year filed U.S. District Court lawsuits, since dismissed, that sought a temporary restraining order preventing the USPS, at a time when it was in negotiations with a developer, from selling the Berkeley facility. The USPS, whose negotiations with the developer fell through, is not currently looking for a buyer, USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz said last week. Previously, he had said the postal service hoped to find a buyer that would lease back the 4,000 square feet of the 57,000-square-foot building currently being used.
The city and trust could refile their suits if and when a buyer is ultimately found.
Protesters meanwhile, are not necessarily content with preserving the status quo. They value both the building’s stature and the service provided within its walls. Wilson said his group would like to see the post office grow back into the vacant space that once was used for carrier operations, since moved to another location in Berkeley. Postal banking and Internet hubs are among the services Wilson believes would help bring the building back to life.
“Usually, a post office is one of the most prominent buildings in town,” said Antonio Rossmann, who represented the city in its suit. “It evokes a time when the public sector was supreme.”
Mike Wilson, with the Berkeley Post Office Defenders, is photographed at the post office in downtown Berkeley on April 15, 2015. Wilson and others have been fighting proposals to close this office and sell the building. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)
The Berkeley post office doesn’t lack for prominence. It features a limestone foundation, marble columns, granite steps, and ornamental oak, marble and bronze flourishes. The lobby is graced by a mural commissioned by the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. The building, particularly the interior, could use some TLC. Exterior window framing is weathered and splintering. There are stickers and some graffiti on the outside of the building.
Inside, patrons have to take a number to wait for one of the two employees manning the windows. Flies buzz about. The floor is scuffed and worn. The windows are spotted and dirty.
“They’ve disinvested in this property and are using it as a justification for selling,” Turner said. But it doesn’t take much to imagine a time when the Berkeley post office lived up to the lofty mission statement expressed on the plaque honoring its 1980 inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places:
“Government buildings constructed in this era,” the plaque reads, “were designed ‘to educate and develop the public taste and eventually elevate it to a higher plane.’ ”
There’s more to the save-the-post-office movement than meets the eye. In addition to setting an aesthetic standard, the Defenders claim the post office was once, and can still be, a vital and efficient public utility. To that end, the group organizes rallies and musical events to raise awareness of the post office’s potential plight. A garden was planted. Ralph Nader accepted an invitation to appear last summer. An information table stands outside the tent, as does a clothing and book exchange.
“Please take what you can use from the box,” a sign reads. “But — please — leave the box.”
Other post office protests have been held across the country, most conducted by union employees whose jobs are at risk but some driven by people who don’t want to lose their local branch.
“Berkeley is by no means the only community that’s working on this issue,” Turner said. “It stretches from liberal Berkeley, to conservative La Jolla, to middle of the road Palo Alto, back east to the Bronx and Somerville, Massachusetts.”
“The motivating factor for me,” Wilson said, “is that the United States Post Office is an organization that runs on a universal service principle — it uses its profits to keep prices low and to be accessible to everyone and operate as efficiently as possible. This (potential sale) is all part of an effort to privatize the post office.”
“What seems to be happening,” Wolfley said, “is that business interests are working to take public resources and turn them into something for profit. Are they a public service? Are they wanting to serve us? Do they get the message or not?”
Loud and clear.
“I’m not surprised, because we’ve been around since 1776,” Ruiz, the USPS spokesman, said. “When people think of the post office, they think of trust and reliability. They see our letter carriers, and it brings a sense of normalcy to their neighborhood. So when we propose to change things, they take it seriously.”
Ying Lee, 83, might be the longest-tenured, most experienced Berkeley activist. She witnessed the free speech protests, which resulted in the university lifting its ban on on-campus political activities, and the People’s Park movement, which forestalled development of the plot bounded by Telegraph Avenue, Bowditch Street, Haste Street and Dwight Way. A former Berkeley councilwoman and post office trustee, Lee sees the Berkeley post office as an artifact of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency — which, she said, set a standard for civic idealism.
“It goes back to the New Deal,” she said. “The country was in dreadful shape. All those programs helped create the understanding that there’s a minimum standard that should be met. (The post office) is a very definite link to that period. We need this as a basic service.”
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.