A novel by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Available at many local bookstores, on Amazon, and at Oakland Public Library branches


The Marcus Foster Mailbox Removal, Belatedly Explained

The drive-up mail drop-box in the Marcus Foster Branch parking lot before it was removed

May 14, 2015

Some weeks ago, I reported on severe cutbacks at Oakland's Marcus Foster Post Office Branch. The branch is located on 92nd Avenue and International Boulevard in the heart of what many people Deep East Oakland, but whose original name was-and is-the Elmhurst District. This is also one of the centers of what I call the "Forgotten Lands," communities that city officials and major businesses generally ignore while they concentrate services and amenities in other areas.

In any event, the cutbacks at the Marcus Foster Branch brought me to the conclusion that post office may have been—and I stress the word may—laying the groundwork for a possible closure of the branch altogether as a cost-cutting measure (see: Cutbacks At East Oakland’s Marcus Foster Post Office).

One of the cutbacks that most stood out was the pulling up of two outdoor mail drop boxes at the Marcus Foster site with neither explanation or prior notice to customers, leaving local residents with at their local post office to deposit their mail after hours or when the branch closed down for lunch each day.

Perhaps in response to my columns, perhaps they were planning to do so all along but just hadn’t gotten around to it—you’ll have to judge that for yourself—post office officials provided something of an explanation three days after my last column on the issue was published.
Late in April, the CBS San Francisco news affiliate station reported a message from postal officials that the outdoor mail drop boxes were removed from Marcus Foster because the boxes had repeatedly been broken into.

“The U.S. Postal Service is removing a collection box from outside an East Oakland Post Office, saying it has consistently been the target of vandals and mail thieves,” the CBS article explained.

“The mailbox across the street from the Marcus Foster Station at 9201 International Blvd. was burglarized for the fourth time since January last week, according to the Postal Service. The drive-up dropoff box is getting broken into faster than it can be replaced, according to the postal service. The thieves have drilled out the locks, pried open the door and removed the bolts. Postal service officials said replacing the mailbox has become a safety issue for postal employees, so they are permanently removing the mailbox.” (“USPS Removing Continuously-Burglarized East Oakland Mailbox” CBS San Francisco, April 29, 2015)

There are two misstatements and one oddity in the CBS article.

The oddity is that “replacing the mailbox has become a safety issue for postal employees.” A safety issue for the employees, how? one wonders. The article doesn’t explain.

The first misstatement—a somewhat minor one—is that the drive-up dropoff box was located “across the street” from the Marcus Foster Branch. The box in question was actually located in the branch parking lot directly adjacent to the building.

The second misstatement in the CBS article—not so easy to dismiss as being simply as an innocent mistake—was its indication that the postal service “is removing” the Marcus Foster box. The CBS article was published on April 29, nearly a month after I published my first column about the removal of drive-up drop box located in the Marcus Foster parking lot. The Marcus Foster Branch actually had two boxes as late as the spring of this year, the other a walk-up box located on the International Boulevard sidewalk directly in front of the branch. The walk-up box was removed by postal officials sometime earlier this year.

The use of the term “is removing” rather than “has removed” in the CBS article is significant, as it gives the impression that postal officials were putting out the information to the press in advance of or simultaneous with the box removal as a way to inform the Marcus Foster Branch patrons. Clearly that wasn’t the case.

We’ll return to that point in  a moment.

At first, one might be tempted to disbelieve the burglary story for a moment in order to hold onto an idea that postal officials pulled up the two Marcus Foster boxes simply to save money. That’s because around the country, the postal service actually has been systematically removing outdoor mail drop boxes in order to save money.

Last year, for example, the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press reported that the postal service had removed at least 43 outdoor mail drop boxes—39% of the total—between Burlington and Boston in a six-month period. The article quoted a local postal official explaining that “In the past two years, greater emphasis has been placed on stabilizing the number of collection boxes in use and relocating low-use boxes to high traffic areas such as shopping centers, business parks, grocery stores, etc. for increased customer convenience." One of the “low-use” locations eliminated, according to the Free Press article, was in front of the South Burlington City Hall. (“Where Have All The Mailboxes Gone?” Burlington Free Press September 11, 2014)

When the good, middle-class white folks of middle Vermont are losing their postal services due to budget cuts, you know how the folks in the nation’s “forgotten lands” like Deep East Oakland are going to fare.

We can remove cost-cutting as a reason for the loss of the Marcus Foster outdoor drop-box, however, not because the postal service isn’t cutting costs at the branch, but because they have to send a truck out to make a pickup at the branch’s indoor box anyway. No time or mileage is saved by eliminating the run to the outdoor mail drop-boxes, not unless the postal service closes the branch altogether. But that’s another story for another time.

That leaves us with the postal service’s belated explanation that the outdoor drop-boxes were removed from Marcus Foster because of repeated break-ins and burglaries. And this time, there’s good reason to take our government at its word.

As sturdy as they appear, those familiar blue outdoor post office mail drop-boxes have, in fact, been the targets of break-ins around the country in recent years. A brief internet search of news reports list outdoor drop box burglaries in the last few years in such disparate areas as the Lehigh Valley area outside of Philadelphia and neighborhoods stretching between Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco, and Austin, Texas. It’s certainly believable, therefore, that boxes in the crime-rich community of Deep East Oakland have become a target as well.

So the notable fact to be considered is not the break-ins at Marcus Foster themselves, but the difference between the response in the East Oakland case and mailbox burglaries in other jurisdictions.

After “someone used a crowbar to get into [a] mailbox” in front of a northwest Houston, Texas post office in the spring of 2013, the local ABC television affiliate reported that “a sign now directs people to go inside to drop off their mail.” The station added “if you think your mail was stolen from the Fairbanks Station mailbox three weeks ago, you can call the postal inspection service 24 hours a day … or walk into your local post office to file a complaint in person.” (“Post office Mailbox Burglarized In Northwest Houston” ABC13 March 12, 2013)

And after a string of post office mail drop-box break-ins just outside of Philadelphia in the summer of 2014, the local newspaper said that a local postal inspector “warns anyone with concerns that their mail may be missing to monitor their financial transactions and report any problems.” “[W]e suggest people keep an eye out for any irregular financial transactions on their accounts," the paper quoted inspector George Clark as saying.” (“U.S. Post Office Drop Boxes Burglarized Across Lehigh Valley, Raising Identity Theft FearsThe Express-Times August 6, 2014)

While the CBS San Francisco story never says specifically that mail was stolen from the Marcus Foster outdoor mail drop-boxes during the four burglaries between January and April of this year, one can surmise that was the case, since the news outlet reported that the thieves had “drilled out the locks, pried open the door and removed the bolts” on the boxes.

But even if the U.S. Postal Service determined that the thieves did not actually make it into the boxes and take out mail, no notice was ever given to drive-up or walk-by patrons—as was done in the Houston mailbox burglary—that a danger might exist in dropping their mail off in those boxes outside, and directing citizens to deposit their mail inside the branch itself or elsewhere. And no notice was given to people who dropped their mail in those boxes during the four months of the burglary spree that their mail might have been stolen and their identities compromised, and where to make a report if they thought that was the case.

All the notice given was an article posted with a local television station reporting on the removal of the mailboxes because of multiple break-ins.

For some reason, therefore, the U.S. Postal Service treated patrons of the Marcus Foster Post Office Branch in Elmhurst District in the flatlands of  East Oakland distinctly differently than they treated patrons in other parts of the country. You are welcome to make your own reasonable guesses as to why this might be so.

Some people may be tempted to assert that the various inconveniences at the Marcus Foster Post Office Branch amount to little more a minor issue in the great scheme of things in the world. But in a community like the Elmhurst that has been long deserted of banks and major supermarkets and hardware stores and healthy food outlets and the like, where police have allowed open-air drug markets to operate with relative impunity for years, where shootings and killings go univestigated, and where citizens express concern about upgrading their community for fear that it will make their neighborhood more attractive to the gentry and end up only getting the current neighbors forced out of their homes… In the light of all that, the stuation at the Marcus Foster Post Office and the disrespect showed for its patrons by the United States Postal Service cannot be viewed in isolation, but as part of a larger pattern and problem.

Production of CounterPoints is not paid for by government grants or corporate stipends. It is made possible only by the generous donations of interested citizens. If you're interested in helping, please see "A Leap Of Faith" Donation Page for more information. Thanks, in advance, for your help and support.