Another small chorus in the song of the city has begun to go silent in the nation’s neighborhoods, as the U.S. Postal Service continues its removal of their iconic blue collection boxes from street corners throughout the country. It’s been going on for six to eight years, now, as the decline in first-class mail usage, the ubiquity of email, increasing competition from Fedex and others, internet bill-paying, and the cost of collecting a dwindling number of hand-mailed items has made the post office collection box increasingly obsolete. First installed in the 1850s alongside post offices and on street corners in large cities, their final delivery will certainly be to the Smithsonian Institution, the reliquary of America’s memory in Washington D.C.
Like the neighborhood service stations of old which ballyhooed the cleanliness of their award-winning bathrooms, rang out with the industry of double service bays, and produced both a uniform-clad window washer and pump jockey as cars drove in over the black rubber hoses announcing each arrival with a distinctive “Ding-Ding” bell, the corner mail box was a part of the strains of neighborhood life.
With collection times stamped beneath their creaky, swing-hinged lids, the cycle of drop off and collection helped create the rhythm that neighborhoods coalesced around. Mrs. Davis, padding out to the corner in her pink slippers to drop off her granddaughter’s birthday card in time for the morning pick up, the right-hand drive post office van parked along the shade of a side street as the postman bent by the box with his long chain of keys ready to unlock the secrets held inside, it was a small but integral part of what made up America’s personality.
Now, just as the interstate highway system of the 1950s dispersed crowded city populations to isolating suburbs, then
air-conditioning removed neighbors from their front stoops and porches and kids from the streets for the astringent cooling of indoor electric comfort, the computer and smart-phone revolution has further sequestered us into virtual worlds where disembodied friends share pixelated realities on two-dimensional screens, and instant messaging and texting has replaced the intimacy of a hand-crafted letter and the anticipated return of its answer found, perhaps days later, in the stack of bills and leaflets held in the dark recesses of the family mailbox.
As my now-departed father once told me of his own not-too-distance days, “the American people lived within the cocoon of their neighborhoods; lived, shopped, played, all in the neighborhood. That’s what America was at the time, friend, neighborhoods not cities.”
In his era the rhythm of the cities could be heard in the clatter of streetcars mingling with the rise and fall of standard shift gears, the sing-song call of young boys hocking newspapers on street corners, and gruff bark of the double-parked truck drivers delivering goods to Mom and Pop storefronts clustered along unifying main drags. Together it made up the song of America. Today, the “Ding-Ding” of the neighborhood service station has been replaced by the hush of a credit card’s single swipe, and the footfalls of the postman by the click of a keyboard. It’s a lot more efficient, no doubt, but the melody is not the same.