Dear Postal Service: Don’t Mess With Berkeley

Post Office Protest

Post Office Protest
Berkeley activists held demonstrations to save their post office.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Following a 3-year struggle that gained national attention, the United States Postal Service backed down from selling Berkeley, California’s historic downtown post office. Built in 1914, the massive Renaissance Revival-style building, which anchors the city’s New Deal civic center, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and houses New Deal murals and sculpture.

When the USPS announced plans to sell the building, the Living New Deal organized meetings that led to the formation of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. Teach-ins and demonstrations on the steps of the downtown post office encouraged the mayor and City Council to join the fight.

After months of public protest and meetings with Postal Service officials proved fruitless, the City and the National Trust for Historic Preservation filed a federal lawsuit seeking to require the USPS to conduct public hearings under environmental and historic-preservation laws before trying to sell the building. When confronted in court with multiple violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, the Postal Service told federal court Judge William Alsup that the post office was no longer for sale. The judge ordered a 42-day public notice of any pending sale or relocation of postal services, and will continue to monitor the USPS for five years. Therefore, future legal action challenging the USPS remains an option.

Berkeley’s successful showdown offers hope to other communities struggling to preserve their post offices and living wage jobs. But the losses continue to mount.

Demonstration to Save the Berkeley Post Office

Demonstration to Save the Berkeley Post Office
Ralph Nader speaking at a Berkeley Post Office rally.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Public protest failed to save Venice Beach, California’s post office, built by the WPA in 1939. A treasured local landmark, the 24,000-square-foot, Art Deco building houses a mural, “Story of Venice,” by artist Edward Biberman. To great fanfare, in 2012 the USPS sold the building to a film producer for $7.5 million. At the press conference the buyer assured the mayor and others assembled that the building would be preserved and its mural restored. The building now stands empty, covered with graffiti.

Conservatives in Congress have long pushed to privatize the post office. During the Nixon Administration, Congress abolished the U.S. Post Office Department and replaced it with the United States Postal Service, a corporate-like entity with an official monopoly on delivering mail in the United States. In 2007, Congress required that the Postal Service pre-fund 75 years of employee benefits. To avoid forced bankruptcy, the USPS began liquidating properties, often over the objections of local communities. The USPS identified some 600 properties, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, for possible sale. Many are on the National Register of Historic Places, and many were built by the Roosevelt Administration and contain New Deal artworks.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation investigated the USPS sell off. Its report to Congress was highly critical of the USPS and its exclusive contract with the real estate giant, CBRE, in which Richard Blum, husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, has a large interest.

Berkeley’s Congresswoman Barbara Lee has introduced The Moratorium on U.S. Historic Postal Buildings Act, but Congress has yet to act.

Berkeley and the New Deal

Harvey Smith’s Berkeley and the New Deal is an eye opener. Like many of Arcadia Publishing’s books, its focus is on local history, richly illustrated with photographs. But Berkeley and the New Deal tells a bigger story. Smith has written a primer on the New Deal itself—its underpinnings and aspirations—with Berkeley the exemplar. His intent is to show not only how the New Deal affected one city, but to highlight the New Deal’s relevance to today’s social, political, and economic realities.

Today it may be caricatured as Berkzerkely, but in the 1930s Berkeley voted Republican. Yet, like other small cities hard hit by the Depression, Berkeley benefitted immensely from the New Deal—in the number of jobs created and the infrastructure those workers left to future generations.

David Slivka’s relief celebrates postal workers.

Berkeley Post Office Relief
David Slivka’s relief celebrates postal workers.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Smith describes such projects as Tilden Park and its Botanical Garden and the amphitheaters, hiking trails, golf courses, and tennis courts meant to make recreation available to everyone. He details the distinctive design of New Deal buildings—many embellished with murals and relief sculptures; and points to government’s emphasis on education, made manifest in beautiful schools and libraries.

Smith laments the loss of historic buildings like the Berkeley Hall of Justice, completed in 1939 with city and federal funds. The building was demolished in 2002 to make way for a parking lot. The Downtown Post Office though itself not a New Deal building, houses New Deal artworks. Like many of the nation’s post offices, Berkeley’s is up for sale—a trend that Smith points to as privatizing what the American people built and paid for.

The former Farm Credit Building, completed in 1940 now serves as Berkeley government offices.

Berkeley Civic Center
The former Farm Credit Building, completed in 1940 now serves as Berkeley government offices.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

While the legacy of the New Deal is often unrecognized, in Berkeley, as elsewhere, there’s growing appreciation for New Deal art and architecture, and the public spirit it embodies. The city recently restored the Mediterranean-style North Branch Library built in 1936; the Berkeley Rose Garden, built in 1937, was commemorated on its 75th birthday; a long-shuttered printing plant built by the Public Works Administration, will soon reopen as the UC Art Museum and Film Archive.

Smith also introduces the reader to Berkeley residents that took part in the Federal Writers’ Project, the California Folk Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and other cultural programs.

The Whittier School, dedicated in 1939, is today a magnet school for the arts.

Berkeley Arts Magnet School
The Whittier School, dedicated in 1939, is today a magnet school for the arts.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Those who know Berkeley will be stunned by how much the New Deal shaped the city. But more than a guide to just one place, Smith’s book is an invitation at large to open our eyes.  We are likely to find the New Deal’s hidden history looming large wherever we live.

Reviewed by Susan Ives

Communities Fight to Save U.S. Post Offices and New Deal Art

Coast to coast, from the Bronx and Chelsea in New York City to Venice, La Jolla, Ukiah, Redlands, and Berkeley in California, the Postal Service has decided that it will sell historic downtown post offices without looking at alternatives.

Hundreds of post offices are up for sale or lease, and the list is growing. Of the 56 U.S. post office buildings currently for sale, six are on the National Register of Historic Places and more may be eligible.

The Berkeley-based National Post Office Collaborate has filed suit in federal court to stop the sale of the Renaissance-style Stamford, Connecticut, Post Office and is prepared to do the same for Berkeley and La Jolla, California and the monumental post office in the Bronx, renowned for its thirteen murals by New Deal artist Ben Shahn.

Stamford Post Office, Courtesy Save the Post Office
Stamford, Connecticut’s Renaissance-style post office may be sold and largely demolished for luxury condos.

After months of public protest and formal appeals by the city, on July 18 Postal Service officials announced that, despite near-unanimous community opposition, it would sell Berkeley, California’s historic post office, citing “dire financial circumstances facing the Postal Service.”

The announcement provoked a month-long encampment in downtown Berkeley to defend the post office and the New Deal artworks it contains.

Berkeley Planning Commissioners voted unanimously on a measure restricting the use of historic buildings in the civic center, including the post office, to community-serving purposes. The California State Legislature passed a measure urging the U.S. Congress to stop the sale of historic post offices and undo the constraints that Congress imposed in 2006 requiring the Postal Service to pre-pay 75-years of health benefits for Postal Service employees—part of the conservative agenda to privatize the U.S. Postal Service by pushing it into bankruptcy.

Berkeley Post Office Protest
Slated for sale: Downtown Post Office, Berkeley, California

Two weeks ago, the Downtown Berkeley Post Office was listed for sale. CBRE holds an exclusive contract with the U.S. Postal Service to sell and lease the post office properties, valued at billions of dollars. The USPS-CBRE relationship is the subject of an explosive exposè by investigative reporter Peter Byrne that found that CBRE — chaired and largely owned by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum — has consistently sold valuable public properties to its associates at prices well below market rates.

The Collaborate is urging an investigation by the USPS Office of Inspector General David Williams. Contributions to defray substantial legal expenses can be made to NPOC, PO Box 1234, Berkeley, CA 94701.

For Sale: America’s Historic Post Offices

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley, California

 

Despite growing public protest, the U.S. Postal Service is moving apace to sell the public’s historic post offices. Last month, the Postal Service added four more post offices on the National Register of Historic Places to its “For Sale” list: California’s La Jolla Wall Street Post Office, built in 1935; New York City’s Old Chelsea Station on West 18th Street, and the Bronx General Post Office on the Grand Concourse, both built in 1937; and the Berkeley Downtown Post Office, which, in spite of a year long campaign to keep the century-old building in the public domain, was recently slated for sale.

Like many other endangered post offices, these buildings contain unique New Deal artworks.

During the 1930s the federal government put thousands to work building the nation’s postal system.  In big cities and small towns alike, New Deal post offices are among the most artful, architecturally distinguished, and beloved buildings.

The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

The Bronx Post Office
The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

“Apparently the country is done with that kind of idealism,” notes Gray Brechin, geographer and Living New Deal Project scholar, “Rather than building beautiful public places, the federal government is selling them off.”

Buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are afforded some protection—their exterior must be preserved. But once sold the buildings are often gutted. In at least one case, a 1937 post office in Virginia Beach, Virginia was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s pharmacy.

The National Historic Preservation Act ensures public access to public artwork, but when post offices are sold the murals and sculptures often are removed to storage. Even when the art remains in place, it’s up to the new owners whether the public may view it.

The Postal Service financial crisis started in 2006 when Congress required the Postal Service to pre-pay 75 years of workers’ benefits within ten years. Although many blame email for the Postal Service’s demise, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 is responsible for $4 out of every $5 in Postal Service debt—more than $15 billion in 2012. In response, the Postal Service is cutting services and selling many of its most valuable properties.

CB Richard Ellis, a giant commercial real estate firm, holds the exclusive contract to sell postal properties worth billions. CB Richard Ellis’ chairman is Richard Blum, a University of California Regent and the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. So far, the press has shown no interest in investigating how that contract was awarded, nor its terms.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced legislation to repeal the law responsible for the Postal Service’s death spiral. The bill recently passed the Senate but the other has yet to be voted on in the House.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Historic Post Office to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places of 2012.

Read Francis O’Connor’s open letter about post office art »

For a list of endangered post offices go to:  http://www.savethepostoffice.com