Where have all the mailboxes gone?

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

On Saturday, after I’d finished writing notes on Christmas cards, I was eager to get the cards into the mail, so I leashed up my dogs and went walking, envelopes in hand, toward a nearby mailbox.

Except there was no nearby mailbox.

A year or so ago, I’d noticed that the mailbox half a block from my New Haven home was no longer there. No problem. I figured that to deposit cards in the outgoing mail on Saturday, I’d have to go just a little farther.

But when I walked one additional block, the mailbox that used to stand near the local Red Cross  headquarters and a Christian Science church (now redeveloped into a public school) was gone, too.

I enjoy walking, so I continued for another block, to a corner by a Congregational church and an apartment building that always reminds me of the Hitchcock movie Rear Window. The mailbox that had been at that corner had disappeared as well.

The dogs were, as usual, eager to see and sniff the world, so we continued to the next corner, a busy one with lots of vehicular traffic. The mailbox that used to be there, however, was, like the others, nowhere to be seen.

This was getting a little frustrating. But the husky and the malamute and I kept moving, this time to an intersection with a funeral home on one corner, a law office on the far side of the street, and a dense collection of condominiums nearby. Everything that had been at that corner three decades ago was still present — except the mailbox.

Finally, approximately six blocks (six-tenths of a mile) from my home, I found the one mailbox that was still in position on this stretch of Whitney Avenue. Whitney is a heavily used thoroughfare running through an area containing a mix of houses, apartments, churches, schools, nonprofit institutions, and other entities. This corridor, extending straight north from Yale and downtown New Haven, is rarely empty.

But when I looked at the schedule on the collection box, I discovered that Saturday pickups had been eliminated. At that point, I put the cards in my coat pocket and turned back home. Obviously, the US Postal Service had decided it was not worth the expense of dispatching trucks to collect mail at frequent intervals in my small city.

I understand the logic. Last month the Postal Service calculated that it will lose $8.5 billion this year. According to one projection, the Service faces a $238 billion deficit over the next decade. It’s estimated that letter carriers will deliver about 26 billion fewer pieces of mail in 2020 than they did in 2009 — a decline of about 15 percent.

People aren’t sending letters. They’re e-mailing. They’re talking on the phone — incessantly. Mailboxes are not yet as rare as phone booths, but they seem to be heading in the same direction. The Los Angeles Times reports (here) that the number of US mail collection boxes fell from 337,000 in 1999 to 187,000 in 2009.

It is during a season of rituals, such as the sending of Christmas cards, that changes in patterns of life suddenly come into focus. When my wife and I moved to New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood in 1983, there was a mailbox on nearly every corner of Whitney Avenue. When I was working on my first book in the mid-1980s, I gathered a considerable amount of the material I needed via first-class mail. Back then, I knew the pickup schedules of half a dozen Whitney Avenue  collection boxes, and was keenly aware of which one offered the last pickup of the afternoon. I often got to that box just before the postal truck showed up.

Those days are gone.

The neighborhood, it’s worth noting, is doing fine — in fact, in some ways, it’s better than it was back then. Italian grocery stores that feature high-quality produce, delectable baked goods, and delicious take-out meals have flourished. Coffee places have opened up. The areas in front of the food stores — drab expanses of pavement a quarter-century ago — have been transformed into café seating areas, full of people sitting and talking outdoors whenever the weather is decent. Sociability abounds.

The vanishing of the mailboxes is hardly tragic. Still, at this time of year, when Americans briefly revert to communicating with cards and stamped envelopes, the absence of the familiar round-topped receptacles along the city’s streets nags at me. The environment seems incomplete.