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Needs Collide

As U.S. Postal Service Weighs Closing Branches, Residents Back A Vital Outpost In City's North End

By Rick Green

August 05, 2011

HARTFORD - The digital revolution hasn't quite arrived at Unity Plaza.

Working and poor folks from the Barbour Street neighborhood in north Hartford come to their post office for money orders and to mail bills, buy stamps or check their mailbox. Many of them walk.

This gritty outpost - the one with the sign where the "o" is missing from Hartford - is not terribly user-friendly (a post office that doesn't open till 9:30?) and is about as far from Apple Store-cool as you can possibly get.

It is also a vital, essential communications link to the world that might be severed later this year.

The U.S. Postal Service has come up with a list of 3,600 of its 35,000 or so post offices that might be shuttered because we're all online and can't be bothered with something as 20th century as mailing a letter with a stamp. The Unity Plaza post office, which holds on between the Discount Beauty Supply and the Temple of God Miracle of Deliverance storefront church, is on the list.

I'm a newspaper guy, so I've got a soft spot for outdated, money-losing institutions that people feel emotionally attached to. But I'm also certain there's a powerful need to close post offices, re-evaluate six-day-a-week delivery and figure out new strategies to become lean and more profitable.

Except that here at Unity Plaza, a forlorn shopping center that feels cut off not just from our new digital age but from the rest of the world, people say a post office is like a stone pillar holding up an impoverished neighborhood that's seen its share of hard times.

"If I need to mail something, I come over here," said Riley Johnson III, a 26-year-old photographer who is just the sort of patron that the postal service says isn't showing up in post offices anymore. "I see the biggest impact on the elderly."

On a recent morning outside the post office, lots of old folks wandered up, but so did working people, the unemployed and an occasional twentysomething.

"No, I don't think it's a good idea. Nobody around here thinks it's a good idea," said Mannie Duncan, a retired machine operator who stops by the post office regularly for stamps and money orders. "I don't use no computer."

Reggie Hales, publisher of the local Inquiring News, pulled up and made a point of telling me that local businesses will suffer if there is not a neighborhood post office for ZIP code 06120. "Most of these people don't have a car in this neighborhood. You make poor people suffer by taking away the little bit of service they need."

The problem is that the first-class letter is leaving us faster than the morning paper. Most post office services can be obtained elsewhere. We pay bills online. They sell money orders at convenience stores, although the price is higher. Letter writing is a quaint hobby for retired schoolteachers.

What we haven't figured out yet is the balance between the old that some people still need and the glorious new digital reality, which isn't always about equal access.

"You have to look to the future," said Christine Dugas, a postal service spokeswoman. "There is an entire generation of people who don't come there anymore."

Five years ago, the postal service delivered 213 billion pieces of mail. It's now down to 176 billion. Many of the post offices that might be closed do as little as two hours' worth of business a day, she said. Last year, the postal service lost $8 billion. The post office, Dugas reminded me, must pay its own way, despite the perception among some that it's a government agency.

"We have to make tough decisions. One of those is looking at our bricks and mortar," she said. "A lot less mail is going through the system."

The post office hopes to replace the storefronts it closes by having other nearby businesses offer some of the same services. For the patrons at Unity Plaza, however, it's just another departure. A local bank replaced its branch with an ATM last year. The public library branch, nearly every seat filled one morning this week, remains.

"Some elderly people don't have cars," said Shirley Gregory, who paused to talk after mailing some letters. "Everybody doesn't have a computer. Everybody can't afford a laptop."

Progress, inevitably, will come to Unity Plaza. It just might not include a post office.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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