RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And the United States Postal Service is in trouble for spending more than it had. With a deficit of eight and a half billion dollars, the Post Office has been cutting back - slashing hours, combining routes and closing offices. As part of NPR's series on changes at the nation's mail carrier, we visit a post office in East Cleveland, Ohio. In this hard-pressed urban community, the staff at the post office has shrunk from just under a hundred workers, to one.
Mhari Saito, of member station WCPN, reports.
MHARI SAITO: Robyn Hales looks down the autumn-hued, tree-lined street in East Cleveland where she grew up in the 1960s. She remembers games of hide and seek and trips to the corner store where the local teens worked. Her family was the first of what would be many African American families to move to the block. Her dad, just out of the military, delivered mail. Everyone knew Mr. Hales.
Ms. ROBYN HALES: On cold days they gave him coffee. He knew when people were sick. He would check on people, things like that. He was their friend.
SAITO: Hales says her dad's job helped propel her family into the middle class. But her hometown has hit hard times. While her mother was in the hospital, thieves broke into her childhood home, ripped out the walls and stole the copper pipes. So, Hales boarded up the doors and windows. The house now sits empty like so many others here. One-fourth of the houses in the city are vacant.
After decades of corrupt or inept leadership, East Cleveland is a financial mess. Businesses have shuttered. Even the library is in budget trouble. So, news that the city's only post office was losing nearly all its staff was a punch in the gut to people like Robyn Hales.
Ms. HALES: I don't get it, why you have to centralize everything and make it harder for people who already are having a hard time.
SAITO: This past summer, Hales organized neighbors and politicians to protest the changes. But the cuts came anyway. Mail is still delivered, but the carriers and clerks are now based in other cities.
East Cleveland Councilman Nathaniel Martin points out the last local post office employee, a clerk at the window, helping folks buy stamps. The parking lot, once filled with mail vans, now sits empty.
Mr. NATHANIEL MARTIN (COUNCILMAN, EAST CLEVELAND): Look. Look at all the vacancies. Look at the - when I used to come here and do my mailings, trucks were everywhere. So, it's been a blow.
SAITO: For communities around the country facing post office cuts, that blow is both emotional and economic. North Carolina A&T Professor Philip Rubio says it's particularly tough for African Americans who have historically made up a fifth of the U.S. Postal Service's work force.
Professor PHILIP RUBIO (University Studies, North Carolina A&T): To lose people in those positions, to lose that kind of wealth that was generated in the community, the current downsizing and attrition - while it's been devastating to all postal workers - it's been especially devastating to the African American community.
SAITO: The City of East Cleveland will lose $100,000 in annual tax revenue from the moved workers. Mayor Gary Norton says the city's razor-thin budget can't accommodate that. Norton says the change at the post office also hurts this poor city, where a third of the residents don't have cars.
Mayor GARY NORTON (East Cleveland, Ohio): The Post Office made a move that basically takes the people who are least able to get to the post office, and moves it away. So when they've got large packages, when they've got certified letters, when they need to get something from the post office, just can't do it here.
SAITO: Cuts to the East Cleveland Post Office will save the Postal Service $200,000, in reduced transportation costs and fewer management positions.
Post Office spokesman Victor Dubina says the popularity of online bill paying and email have cut the volume of mail to 1960s levels. Tough choices have to be made, Dubina says, to keep the Post Office going.
Mr. VICTOR DUBINA (Spokesman, Postal Services): If we don't keep the organization viable and do the things that make business sense, then the organization collapses. Then all those who depended upon it, you know, what happens to them? Our responsibility is to keep the organization viable.
SAITO: Around the country, that means more possible cuts and closures of post offices.
For NPR News, I'm Mhari Saito.
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MONTAGNE: We've been asking listeners to share their most treasured piece of mail with us, and we've been receiving all kinds of goodies. One, a rejection letter a listener received from famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov; a frosting-topped cake mailed 300 miles was another; plus a postcard from the poet Allen Ginsberg, signed love and kisses; and a postcard from a resident of a Siberian exile camp. You can see those and more at NPR.org.
Our series continues tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with a look at the future of the rural post office. And then tomorrow, on WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY...
Unidentified Man: If we have one less day to be able to ship and receive, that makes a huge difference when you're trying to satisfy your customer.
MONTAGNE: We'll look for the pros and cons of eliminating Saturday delivery.
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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.