Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Yes, Fracking Way: A New Post Office in an Oil Boom Town

It is exceedingly rare in this day and age that the U.S. Postal Service opens a new Post Office. I mean an entirely new, USPS-staffed, postal retail operation. The fact is it just doesn't happen. Sure, there are plenty of 'new' post offices around at new locations; but those are nearly always the result of: a) a consolidation of two retail facilities into one at a different location; b) the downsizing of a post office to a new location within the same ZIP code once its carriers have been moved to a different facility; or c) the reopening of a post office that had previously lost its lease. In other words, very rarely do you see a physical net gain of a postal retail facility when a 'new' post office opens. But a completely new postal retail unit is exactly what the oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota received as the Badlands Postal Store opened on July 1.

(But what, you ask, about all these new Contract Postal Units (CPUs), Staples pretty-much-CPUs, and Village "Post Offices" (VPOs) USPS keeps opening up? No, we're not counting those, because those aren't staffed by actual USPS personnel. The Badlands Postal Store is, and I say USPS's Dakotas District should be commended for not taking the typical 'cheap' route to provide an expansion of postal retail services in Williston.)

Where is Williston, you ask? It's in a very remote corner in what was, before the advent of hydraulic fracturing, a very sleepy part of America. How remote, you ask? The town is more than 600 miles from the nearest million-person population centers. Minneapolis is 620 miles away, about the same distance as Williston is to Calgary up in Canada. Put in East Coast terms, that's the distance from Boston, past New York and D.C., all the way to a point 70 miles south of Richmond, Virginia. But these days Williston is at the center of the U.S.'s hottest job market.

Of course, there's a map for that.

The population of Williston has ballooned from 13,000 in 2009 to more than 20,000 today, and the growth shows no signs of abating. Much of the new development has occurred to either the north or west of the city's core, with particular expansion north along U.S. 2. The location of this new post office reflects this; it resides north of the town's airport, bringing the post office three miles closer to large commercial and industrial developments that have been built north of town over the past few years. Makes sense to me.

Williston, ND Postal Map:

(If you're interested in getting a sense for the recent growth patterns in and around Williston over the past few years, the author recommends studying the 'historical' satellite imagery available on Google Maps, which presently dates as far back as 1995.)

As the city has grown so too have the demands on Williston's post office, with customers fretting over the ever-longer lines and wait times. North Dakota Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven have been championing a new post office in Williston for some time; Minot's KMOT covered the opening and quotes Senator Heitkamp: "We have been struggling for many years. ... We've been trying to get upgrades to the Williston Post Office. As the post office is struggling financially across the country, I think sometimes it's very hard to convince them to make investments in a place where they don't have a lot of familiarity."

Williston's Herald writes that postal service improvements have been made throughout the region, including the addition of 460 post office boxes in Parshall, 90 miles to the east. This said, the author observes that of the ten closest post offices to Williston, several have already been converted to Postmaster-less POStPlan operations: the towns of Trenton, Alexander, Arnegard, and Bainville [MT] now possess four-hour post offices, while Epping and Cartwright have been downgraded to two-hour operations. Should the populations in these smaller communities expand and should additional services be required, would these offices, too, receive reinstated hours and improved treatment?

Back in Williston, the Badlands Postal Store—located at 4315 9th Ave. W, Unit 411—possesses 2,800 P.O. Boxes available for rent. Its inaugural retail operating hours are 9:00am to 4:30pm. The office itself is open 24/7 to enable maximum access to P.O. Boxes as well as a self-service kiosk in the lobby.

(P.S. USPS, if you're reading this, note that your online Locator tool woefully misplaces the Badlands Postal Store on a map. The location is north of the airport, not directly west of the main office downtown! People will get terribly lost if they obey your map.)

Gary S., a friend of Going Postal, visited the Badlands Retail Store on its opening day and provided the following photos and much information for this report.

The Badlands Retail Store is so named because it is resides in the new Badlands Town Center development, which, according to town documents, is to be a 5.5-acre retail center built near what will be a large new housing subdivision and Williston's Walmart. Groundbreaking occurred on June 24, 2013 and stores are slated to open throughout this year. (According to a developer, "100% occupancy" was hoped for "by the second quarter of 2014".) That said, the Badlands Postal Store became the first commercial operation to open in the development on July 1.

The following are opening-day photos.

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Gary writes: "At first I thought I had the wrong place, as the parking lot was completely deserted, but then I saw the Postal Service banner on the building. I arrived about 2 1/2 hours after the post office opened and not a customer was around. The clerk told me that it had been a slow morning. Obviously, word about the new post office had not gotten out yet. I saw three clerks, they were mostly just getting things straightened away in the building."

There was still clear work to do at the new facility. Only temporary banners were in place let customers know that a post office was open. (The author suspects that a permanent and backlit Sonic Eagle sign will be installed.) The door didn't yet have the stenciled lettering with the name of the post office and its hours of operation. Furthermore, the flagpole and an exterior blue collection box were not yet in place. Finally, there was not yet a postmarking device unique to the facility (only a hand-me-down from the Williston MPO). But with the Postal Service progress takes a little bit of time, and these issues will in all likelihood be resolved by the time the shopping center reaches full commercial steam and customers become more aware of the location.

One of the great things about post office openings is that you're usually allowed to take photographs inside with minimal-to-no hassle, because USPS wants to show the facility off! First-day interior photos at the Badlands Postal Store show a clean, modern facility. All the counters, customer work areas, and waste receptacles feature USPS's current faux-blue marble-atop-wood trim design motif. All work areas featured a complete collection of postal service [Insurance, Certified, etc.] forms. At the retail window three clerk stations were fully set up and ready to serve customers (though, based on the above first-hand observations it will take a while before post office traffic reaches full steam).

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store customer lobby
Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store retail counter
Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Finally, here is a photo from the P.O. Box area. Relish the background view out the window: it's probably the last time you will see the landscape so comparatively pristine.

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store P.O. Box area
Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Going Postal hopes to check back with the Badlands Postal Store in a few months, when the post office is more polished and we will likely find a much busier scene.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Texarkana: The Post Office in Two States

Among the more than 31,000 postal retail operations currently active across the U.S., the downtown post office in Texarkana is definitely among the most unique post offices. It makes for a nice, quick visit if you find yourself along this part of I-30.

Texas became the 48th state into which I set foot, on August 5, 2012. It was the first time I'd first set foot into a state on Federal/postal property: the Downtown Station post office of Texarkana—the city that's "Twice as Nice," if you believe the water tower off I-30—is perfectly bisected by the Arkansas/Texas state line. The state line is appropriately marked by State Line Avenue, along which northbound traffic is in Arkansas and southbound traffic is in Texas. This means that the photo below was the effective result of a jaywalking misdemeanor I was able to commit in two states at once. Not that anyone cared—only one car passed me that sweltering [95°] Sunday afternoon, and the driver shrugged off my daring photo op maneuver as old hat.

Let's show you a map and the building in question.

Texarkana downtown map with post office

Texarkana: Downtown Station post office

This federal building is indeed the only one of its kind that physically straddles two states, and it serves as a Federal Courthouse as well. As it turns out its location makes things a bit tricky. You see, the Constitution's Sixth Amendment dictates that "the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." Meaning, if you commit a crime in Arkansas, you must be tried by a jury of your Arkansas peers. You'd also have to be tried in Arkansas. Similarly in Texas. So what's the architect behind a federal courthouse in Texarkana to do? Well, you could build two distinct courthouses, one on each side of the state line, or you could save the government a whole lot of money by just constructing one courthouse, physically along the state line. Inside the building, the courtrooms for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas lay within the western side of the building fully within Texas; while courtrooms for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas are fully within Arkansas. Savvy, no?

The United States Courts website thoroughly discusses the nuances of this situation.

A historic marker at the building reads: "Each state [Arkansas and Texas] had separate post offices until 1892," at which point the first joint post office was constructed on the state line. That building was demolished in 1930, and the present structure, constructed on the same site, was completed in 1933. "The base is of Texas pink granite while walls are of limestone from Arkansas," the marker continues.

As these two old postcards show, the two sides like to have a little fun with each other...
Texarkana: Ass in Arkansas

Texarkana: Ass in Texas

Inside the postal lobby (according to my sources; alas, the lobby is locked on Sundays), the postal retail counter is located on the Texas side of the state line, while PO Boxes (with separate sections for Texas and Arkansas box mail) are located on the Arkansas side of the line. According to the General Services Administration (or GSA, which operates the building and runs this thorough webpage describing the architecture and renovations of the building): Although the postal lobby, located immediately beyond the first floor elevator lobby, has undergone repeated modifications since construction, including the introduction of an inappropriate post office box "hut" and customer corral, it retains much of its original character.

Many photos of the building are available at the GSA's website, though only one includes the post office lobby and the aforementioned "PO Box hut". Sadly, the photos, taken in 2003, were taken with a shoddy camera and are of subpar quality. But, they're all we've got and nonetheless one can get a basic sense of the postal lobby with this picture:

GSA photograph: Texarkana post office interior

From the looks of it one might need to pass through security to enter the postal lobby. It is possible that packages being mailed at the facility must be scanned by security, as is the case at Providence, Rhode Island's downtown Annex Station post office, which also houses federal court facilities.

There are other notes of postal interest as well. For example, the postal management center (District) responsible for the operations in Texarkana—Texas and Arkansas, is based in Dallas. USPS's Dallas District is responsible for the operations for every ZIP code in [northeastern] Texas beginning with '75', and only those ZIP codes, except that it also oversees operations within the 71854 ZIP code for Texarkana, Arkansas. Every other ZIP code in Arkansas is subservient to USPS's Arkansas District.

I think it's interesting to see how Texarkana plays out in the postmark arena.

Here's a Texarkana cancellation from 1966 that uses the city's Texas ZIP code:
Texarkana Postmark 1966

... and a more recent cancellation that uses Texarkana's Arkansas ZIP code:
Texarkana Postmark 2006

This postmark, from a since-discontinued carrier annex in Texarkana's Texas half, keeps things simple:
Texarkana, USA Carrier Annex postmark, 2006

There are just a handful of analogous administrative crossover instances in the country, most of which involve communities in Appalachia, including: Bristol, TN/VA (whose three Tennessee ZIP codes are not managed by the USPS's Tennessee District, as one would expect, but rather by the neighboring Appalachian District); South Williamson, KY 41503 (managed by Appalachian instead of the expected Kentuckiana, based on its ZIP code); and South Fulton, Tennessee 38257 (Kentuckiana instead of Tennessee). In a similar vein, Fishers Island is the only community in New York that has a Connecticut ZIP code, 06390, owing to the fact that the Fishers Island ferry that carries the town's mail is based in Connecticut. But that's another post.

Texarkana's [now-]downtown post office served as a regional mail processing hub until its operations were moved into a rather generic building on the Texas side of town in 1971. The building's address is 2211 N. Robison Rd., 75501.

Texarkana: Main Post Office

As a result of USPS's Area Mail Processing program both originating (to-be-cancelled) and destinating (to-be-delivered) Texarkana mail now gets processed in Shreveport, Louisiana, 70 miles away.

Postmark scans used in this entry were kindly provided by Kelvin Kindahl from his personal collection.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Astoria Story:
Queens Post Office Reopens After Two-Year Absence

New Astoria Post Office Opening Card

Information cards were mailed to local residents informing them of the Astoria post office's grand re-opening at its new location. Posing in the photo is recently retired Postmaster Michael Menasche, who spearheaded the relocation effort.

Ah, Astoria. Remember All in the Family? Astoria was the setting for the show. Astoria is a community in Queens with a rich history and about 150,000 residents—about the same size as Eugene, Oregon and Alexandria, Virginia. The community is undergoing rapid redevelopment with an influx of younger residents. Land along the East River is hot these days, and property values throughout many parts of Long Island City and Astoria have been increasing. Hold that thought.

For your reference, here is a map of the area, with convenient markers denoting post offices.

Astoria, NY Postal Map

For years the Astoria post office resided at 27-40 21st St.:
Former post office site, Astoria, New York

Remember that thing about increasing land values? Compare the old post office building to its surroundings. See the taller structures around it? The site's owner preferred to have the site redeveloped instead of renewing the Postal Service's lease, and so the old Astoria post office closed in mid-2012.

Today the new Astoria Station post office held a reopening ribbon-cutting ceremony with local postal officials and U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York's 12th Congressional District. The new post office is located at 30-11 21st Street, three blocks south of its former location.

Here is a photo of the new office:
New post office, Astoria, New York

Inside, the post office maintains the Postal Service's new design standard, which features vibrant blue countertops atop faux wood frames. At the Astoria post office there are two clerk window stations. The P.O. Box area is to the left.

New Astoria post office, interior

Frank Calabrese, USPS Triboro District Manager told GP that postal officials never considered formally discontinuing the Astoria Station after its suspension in 2012. Speaking at the ceremony, he declared that he was thrilled to inaugurate this new "state-of-the-art facility." After the Astoria Station's closure in 2012, Astoria 20 carrier routes had been based out of Long Island City's main post office, two miles south. Manager of Post Office Operations John Tanna was on-hand and was also glad to see the Astoria Station reopened, noting in conversation that having carriers stationed back in the neighborhood is "much more efficient."

Congresswoman Maloney spoke eloquently about the importance of post offices in their communities. In an interview with local news channel NY1 she stated that "the community absolutely loves its post office. We're going to be here to support it." She praised the new location, saying "it's a beautiful space [in] an important neighborhood." Adding that most New Yorkers "don't drive; we use mass transit or we walk," she declared that the Astoria post office is vital to this quickly growing neighborhood, adding that "reopening this post office is truly a community celebration." Personally, she noted, "It's wonderful to get a piece of mail."

USPS Triboro District Manager Frank Calebrese and U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney discuss postal matters prior to the ribbon-cutting at the Astoria post office, June 9, 2014.

All hands on deck at the Astoria post office ribbon-cutting.

U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney interviews with NY1 after the ribbon-cutting.

The Congresswoman also noted that the [Queens] Plaza post office was losing its lease in a manner similar to that of the old Astoria Station, vowing to work with the Postal Service and the community to "save the Plaza post office" and relocate its operations. She invited public input regarding leads on a new location.

Also on-hand were Station Manager Eddie Galdamez, who expressed pride in his new domain and attentively assisted customers before they even arrived at the retail window; and recently instated Officer-in-Charge for Long Island City, Scott Farrar.

Interestingly enough, USPS's lease for the new site had been signed for some time and the location was fully functional back in January. Unfortunately, New York City's Department of Transportation held up the formal recommissioning of the post office; you see, with all the (20+) carriers stationed at this location, trucks need to be able to pull up, load and unload mail without double-parking and obstructing a major local thoroughfare. There's no room for parking lots here. In a dense setting such as New York you often need signage to reserve such parking spots for postal vehicles. New York's DOT took more than four months to install the appropriate signage.

Better late than never!

P.S. What's going on at the former post office site now? This:

Friday, April 25, 2014

Postal Tour: Merced, California

The city of Merced lies in the San Joaquin Valley, along Highway 99 in central California. Merced prides itself as being the gateway to Yosemite National Park, which is accessible by California State Route 140. The city's population is presently about 80,000. Downtown maintains much of its character while development has sprawled to the north. This growth is reflected in the location of postal units in the community.

Here are maps of Merced within central California as well as a postal map of the community.

Merced, CA mapped in context

Postal map of Merced, CA

The Federal Building in Merced, managed by the General Services Adminstration (GSA), formerly served as the main post office for the city. Fortunately the GSA publishes information about the historic buildings it manages, and has this to say about the architecture what now houses the T. V. Bell Station post office in addition to a few federal offices.
The Merced Federal Building and Post Office is an example of academic Classisism, tempered by a more vernacular Mediterranean influence. It is classical in the bilateral symmetry of its facades and its reliance on the Classical hierarchy of base, shaft, and capital in its vertical organization. Classical decorative elements include the round-headed arches, surrounded by voussoirs, molded terra cotta panels with swag motifs below the principal windows, and a cornice with terra cotta modillions surrounding the main body of the structure. Other, more vernacular, Mediterranean influences include the "Mission" clay tile hipped foor over the main portion of the building, the plain stucco wall surfaces, and relative simplicity of the facades' organization.

It might help to see the building:

Merced, CA: Federal Building / T. V. Bell Station post office
Merced, CA: Federal Building / T. V. Bell Station post office

Merced, CA: Federal Building / T. V. Bell Station post office

From this interior view you can see one of the two New Deal-sponsored tempera paintings which hang in opposite ends of the building's lobby. The murals (information courtesy are "Early Settlers" by Helen Forbes and "Vacheros" by Dorothy Puccinelli. Both were painted in 1937.

"Early Settlers":


This is also reputedly the first post office to be named by act of Congress after a postal employee. Thomas V. Bell served as a postal employee in Merced for nearly 50 years, serving as Acting Postmaster from June 30, 1964 to the end of 1965.

(Another post office to be renamed by Congress in honor of a postal employee is the Robert Wayne Jenkins (formerly Southside) Station post office in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mr. Jenkins was shot during the course of his carrier duties on Dec. 21, 2001. Representative John Sullivan sponsored the legislation; more details here.)

The then-Post Office Department transferred custody of the Federal Building in Merced to the GSA upon completion of its new Main Post Office facility, 0.6 miles away, in 1965.

Merced, CA: Main Post Office:
Merced, CA Main Post Office

Development to the north of downtown necessitated the establishment of an additional postal outlet. Currently the area is served by a Contract Postal Unit (CPU) at a Raley's supermarket. Many of the regional chain's 139 stores house CPUs.

Merced, CA: Raley's CPU:
Merced, CA: Raley's CPU

'Til next time!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Census of Post Boxes

We've all got a mental image of our neighborhood mail collection box, right? It's SpongeBob MailPants, but blue.

SpongeBob MailPants

(This was found by a friend outside the Miami Children's Hospital. Here's a story about the temporary program, and here's little USPS YouTube video showing how they were made.)

In the old days, however, collection boxes looked different. They were smaller, they were mounted on poles and walls, and they most certainly were not blue. Some older collection box models remain in circulation; today you'll primarily find them in front of rural post offices and around scattered historic districts. These boxes have been around for decades, are seen by some as relics, and are slowly being phased out by the Postal Service due to the added capacity and wider mouth of 'standard' collection boxes.

I found this pole-mounted box in the town of South Hill in southern Virginia last summer. The Postal Service was looking to remove the box shortly.

Pole-mounted post box

Pole-mounted post box

The website of the National Postal Museum describes the history of post boxes in the U.S.:
After the introduction of stamps, people wanted a more convenient place to drop-off their mail than [at] the post office. In the 1850s, the Post Office Department began installing collection mailboxes outside of post offices and on street corners in large cities.

Collection boxes were initially mounted on lampposts. Albert Potts, a Philadelphia iron manufacturer, patented the first of these mailboxes on March 9, 1858 (patent number 19,578).
The website presents a gallery and details regarding ten post boxes of varying models in the Museum's collection. (NOTE: The site doesn't display correctly on some browsers. Furthermore, the site does not include all varieties of old post boxes, including some that you'll see here.) Included with the details are notes regarding collection box colors. To wit, with respect to one 19th-century model:
The boxes were color-coded and were either red or green. Residents considered the red boxes more convenient because mail was picked-up every hour, but the green boxes only had collections four to five times a day and twice on Sundays.
Quoth Wikipedia:
Beginning in 1909, all mail collection boxes were painted a dark green to avoid confusion with emergency and fire equipment. Dark green gave way to olive drab green after World War I, when the U.S. Army donated a large supply of olive drab green paint to the Post Office. Olive drab green subsequently became the standard color for all U.S. mail collection boxes until 1955. On July 4, 1955, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield announced that the Post Office would begin painting all mail collection boxes in red, white, and blue to make them easily identifiable.
I found this non-standard collection box at a rural Pennsylvania post office in 2012:

Red, white and blue post box

(In the old days you'd be more likely to see a red-blue design like those seen here:)

Chauncey, WV; 1978—photo by J. Gallagher

Juanita, ND; 1980—photo by A. Patera

(These, as well as more than 15,000 other photographs, can be found at the PMCC's incredible Post Office Photos site, which I also maintain.)

Some collection boxes take up a life of their own after they're formally retired from service. For example, this Doremus lamppost mailbox now resides at a rural post office in New England, serving as a depository for letters to Santa:

Repurposed Doremus post box

Some readers might remember this box, from the Silver Dollar City CPO in Missouri:

The solid blue collection box theme we know today became the norm in 1971, when the U.S. Postal Service as we know it was established as a result of the Postal Reorganization Act. And despite my highlighting interesting exceptions here, the vast majority of old-style post boxes in use today are [Owens-style mailboxes that are], indeed, also solid blue.

If you're interested in locating such old-style post boxes near you, USPS has hidden a little hint for you within its submissions to the Postal Regulatory Commission's for its 2013 [USPS] Annual Compliance Review. Since many databases that ordinarily could not be accessed except through FOIA requests are submitted as part of the public record, you can find all sorts of interesting data about our postal network. Two massive Excel files provide the locations of all mail collection points (such as blue boxes) and their attendant collection times across the United States. They can be found among the files posted here. You can organize and analyze the data as you see fit.

Virtually all the existing post box examples of which I'm aware are categorized in these databases under TYPE "POST" and "WALL." I used filters within Excel to highlight just those collection points for this article.

This list and map includes all collection points from these databases that are of TYPE: "POST" as well as some of TYPE: "WALL." I have removed the vast majority of "WALL" entries because there appears to be no standard definition for this term. Many postal districts apply it loosely toward generic mail slots in office towers and post office lobbies as well as to any actual blue post boxes that are mounted on walls. So while I have attempted to generate the most informative listings and maps possible from the raw data provided, you should still take these data with one or more grains of salt. (See an error or omission? Let us know in the comments. It is possible that many more post box collection points exist in sporadic but concentrated clusters throughout a couple of metropolitan regions.)

Here is a map of approximately 625 locations in question.

"POST" listings appear pretty accurate. Looks what happens when you employ Google Street View at on one of the points (321 Willings Alley) in Philadelphia:

The oldest post box I've seen was located in downtown Ellensburg, Washington, reputedly from 1905.

This old-style box is in front of the post office in Fort Meade, SD.

Here are images of two post boxes unaccounted for in CPMS data:

Lafe, AR Community Post Office (2012)

Angle Inlet, MN (2013, image courtesy J. Emerson)

All styles of older post boxes are being slowly phased out by USPS. A USPS Delivery Operations specialist notes that "rust is a common enemy" for these boxes, and "there are no parts nor technicians available to repair these boxes if something happens." New standard (four-legged) collection boxes also enable the acceptance of larger flats and Priority envelopes, and so "[USPS does] not disappoint these customers when they arrive at a box" to deposit items larger than letter-sized mail.

Hope you enjoyed your tour of this little neck of the postal woods!