On unequal access at the post office

This is the James A. Farley Post Office in New York City.

James. A Farley Post Office, Manhattan

It is Manhattan’s main post office, located on 8th Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets, across from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station toward the southwest edge of Midtown. It is a beautiful building, even if the United States Postal Service is too broke to adequately maintain it. Above the columns facing 8th Avenue is the famous inscription, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

(The construction you see in this photo is phase 1 of Moynihan Station, the half-baked plan to convert part of the postal building into a new Amtrak concourse for Penn Station. But that’s a story for another post.)

As a stay-at-home dad, this has been my go-to post office for some time, even though it’s some distance from where I live in Brooklyn. My local post office closes at 5.30pm, and even if I could more easily haul both of my kids there during the day, the long lines, run-down conditions, and unfriendly staff make it less than ideal. Okay, so the James A. Farley Post Office isn’t much better—but at least it’s open until 10pm. Which is why I was there last night, because I had two shipments I had prepared online—one to my mother, the other to a customer—that I needed to get into the mail.

Normally, that’s pretty simple: hop off the subway at 34 St-Penn Station, run up to the post office’s retail lobby, and drop the boxes in the window this post office reserves for packages. In ideal conditions, from subway station to post office and back may take three or four minutes tops. But yesterday, I decided to bring this little guy along with me.

My son

We hadn’t been outside all day, and I figured that this, even if it’s just an errand, might be a good opportunity to spend some daddy-son time together. Little did I know that this—or, more specifically, this stroller—would prove to be a major source of frustration in trying simply to get two packages, with postage prepaid, in the mail.

We arrived by subway around 7pm. I walked along 8th Avenue from 33rd to 31st Street looking for a handicapped-accessible entrance. I wasn’t sure where it was, but I thought I had seen it before. Now, it’s just a stroller, and I’m fortunate that, if needed, I can simply pick it up and carry it up stairs or wherever it needs to be. (Someone in a wheelchair does not have that option.) So while looking for an elevator entrance, I also checked whether any of the half-dozen or so entrances I could see had a door that simply swung open. No, not one: they were all revolving doors, impossible to get a stroller through.

So I made my way back up to 33rd Street and turned the corner. There is a security booth on this side of the building, not quite halfway to 9th Avenue. I spoke with the security guard, and he pointed me a little farther down 33rd. And this is what I found:

Wheelchair ramp, James A. Farley Post Office, Manhattan

A temporary ramp. This, apparently, is what counts as accessibility at one of the largest post offices in the country, on the edge of the largest office district in the country, across the street from the busiest transportation hub in the country. But it’s what there was, so down my son, the stroller, and I went.

When we got to the bottom of the ramp, a woman leaving the building said that the post office was closed. I explained my conundrum and she said to check with the security guard inside. Which I did, and was informed that, indeed, this retail location was closed and there was no way to access the other one from this part of the building.

Apparently, the James A. Farley Post Office has two retail locations. Those needing handicapped access can use this location—but only until 5pm. Even though the other, main retail lobby is open until 10pm, it is not currently handicapped accessible.

I eventually found one that I could take a stroller into, the Grand Central post office at 450 Lexington Avenue, which is open until 9pm. It took me over an hour, a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) walk, and some frustration, but I was able to get my two packages in the mail. And I saw some cool stuff along the way.

But I’m an able-bodied 32-year-old. My only problem was a stroller, which normally I can handle—this time, the  lack of a door that the stroller would actually fit through was the issue. Walking a mile and a half isn’t a problem, especially when I’d planned on taking a walk through Midtown with my son anyway.

What if I really had been handicapped? Or what if I were older and less able-bodied—perhaps able to walk up the steps at the James A. Farley Post Office, but unable to walk to the Grand Central post office, or unable to navigate the stairs and passages to take two trains over to Grand Central?

This isn’t about me; I’m frustrated but fine. This is about truly being the Greatest City in the World. Listen, I get it: New York City has a bunch of old stuff—old sidewalks, old subways, old buildings. While it’s frustrating that more of the subway system isn’t accessible, it’s remarkable just how much of it is: the 100 stations with elevators may represent less than a quarter of the system, but it’s still more than the total number of stations in the entire Metro system in Washington, D.C. (which is fully ADA compliant). But at the James A. Farley Post Office last night, I didn’t find even the attempt to be accessible. I was told, if you can make it up the steps and through the rotating door, come on in; if you’re in a wheelchair, come back tomorrow.

What makes a city great isn’t its buildings or its infrastructure or its parks—it’s its people. But when it accommodates some residents while ignoring others or telling them to come back later, does it really deserve to be called great, much less The Greatest?

In the meantime, I’ve found a new go-to post office.

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