Breaking a town from the center
Saturday, 02 August 2008

By Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern

Robert Frost wrote once that "good fences make good neighbors." We love Frost - we live on land he once owned in this small Green Mountain town - but that's the poet being cynical. What really makes for good neighbors, as the 562 residents have learned over the years, is a post office like the one this town has enjoyed since the 1800s. Tucked into a tiny corner of the general store, the post office is our town commons, a place where neighbor has no choice but to rub shoulders with neighbor.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, a sign went up a few weeks ago saying that the U.S. Postal Service was closing our post office. If we wanted our mail, the sign said, we'd have to drive to the next town, which is at the bottom of a winding gorge, on a road that is only marginally passable. It's a 10-mile round trip, for some, and 18 miles for others, which is not an inconsiderable distance in these days of $4 a gallon gas. And talk about carbon footprint. But these are merely the obvious, measurable costs.

As soon as the closure sign went up on the post office door, people began to mobilize. And they weren't just the usual suspects - the ones who serve on the town board or run the recycling program. They were fifth-generation Vermonters, they were carpenters, they were teachers, retirees and gardeners - they were a representative sampling of us all.

Some said they'd hang around the store in case the postal service made good on its threat to remove the bank of mail boxes, the old kind, with a glass window and a combination lock. (After two days, the Postal Service backed down.)

Scores of calls were made - to the postmaster general, to various regional USPS offices, to customer service. (We would have sent letters, but there was no place to buy stamps in town.) Scores more calls were made to the Vermont congressional delegation. A meeting was called, and 124 residents crowded into town hall to voice their concern. The media came, drawn less by what was happening to our mail than what was happening in our town - our passion, commitment and solidarity. How quaint!
These days, the average American has half as many close friends as his predecessor half a century ago, and shares meals with neighbors and family half as often. But in our little town, there are community suppers, a monthly coffee house, family soccer games, a farmers' market. As Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders and Representative Peter Welch wrote to the postmaster general, Jack Potter, "The town of Ripton is a small, close-knit community. The Ripton General Store and the post office are a center and a primary gathering place for residents."

The fact is, as almost everyone who packed town hall pointed out, the reason we're so close-knit is because of the post office - and because, especially, it's in the one retail business in town.

This is how towns get broken, someone pointed out at the meeting: Send people away from the center and it cannot hold; make them drive to the bottom of the mountain to get their mail, and they'll shop there, too. Soon enough the ancient red building, which stocks the bread and milk and eggs that lets us stay close to home on a snowy day, will become history, too.

Not long after the congressional delegation wrote to Postmaster Potter, we all received letters of apology from the regional headquarters. Sorry, it said, for shutting down your post office without giving you proper notice. As to whether anyone was sorry for shutting to begin with, or what plans they had for the future, it didn't say.

So the people in town kept asking, kept sending e-mails, did more research. We learned, for instance, how the postal service strategic plan calls for more "streamlined" operations and how we weren't the only rural community fighting to hold on to this vital public service.

And then, suddenly, the mail came back to Ripton. Though it's too early to say it's for good - we still don't have a postmaster, and the window is open just a few hours a day, staffed by townspeople - it was a defining moment for our community: Getting our mail was sweet, but having our post office was even sweeter.

Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern are writers. McKibben's most recent book is "The Bill McKibben Reader," and Halpern's is "Can't Remember What I Forgot."

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