The Venice post office is a gem with a tile roof and a beautiful work of art inside.
It was built by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. That New Deal program also paid an artist to paint the mural that still graces the lobby 70 years later.
Now the post office may be closed as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s budget-cutting plan.
The irony is painful: a post office built to get America back to work during that economic collapse might be closed by penny-pinching bureaucrats in this one.
“Here we have a government-funded building where you have this beautiful mural and these marble steps,” said Amanda Seward, an attorney and preservationist. “It gives you this sense of majesty in the town center. Do you know how much it would cost to create that in today’s dollars? And now you want to close it?”
The fate of the Venice post office is a sad commentary on a time when paralyzed government is utterly incapable of investing in beautiful public works that last, or even just giving hardworking Americans good jobs. Senate Republicans, you may recall, recently blocked President Obama’s infrastructure spending plan. No compromise plan is in the offing.
We desperately need a New Deal sequel — a New Deal Lite, even. Instead, we’re getting No Deal.
The official line of the Party of No is that government needs to do less. In their letters to me, supporters of this philosophy dance on the grave of all sorts of public services. School libraries? Use the Internet! Humanities classes? Art and sociology are luxuries we can’t afford! They revel in ignorance.
Personally, I think a service that will ship a letter for less than 50 cents to any address across the country — be it the Supreme Court or Rush Limbaugh’s office — is pretty essential.
“It’s one of those things where we’re going to say, ‘Oh my God, what did we do? We really needed post offices,’” said Robert Smith, a 49-year-old landscape designer whom I met at the Venice post office this week after he checked a P.O. box.
As luck would have it, Smith is the son of a postal carrier. His dad sorted and delivered letters for 40 years in North Carolina. The Postal Service, he told me, would be profitable but for a piece of 1996 legislation approved by a lame-duck Congress requiring the service to pour additional funds into its pension plan.
“They set up the Postal Service to fail,” Smith told me.
Of course, the same could be said for all sorts of public services. We underfund the schools, then blame them for poor test scores. We go to war in Iraq, then give our soldiers second-rate body armor.
The Venice Post Office is a perfect example of something the government did well for a long time. Besides letter delivery and post office boxes, it’s provided Venice with something intangible for more than seven decades: making a routine part of everyday community life grand and interesting.
“You run into everyone you know when you go there,” said Linda Lucks, president of the Venice Neighborhood Council. “Just standing there, you look up and you see the history of Venice.”
The mural painted by Edward Biberman in 1941 is a small work crowded with images. On the left, beachgoers in old-fashioned bathing suits; on the right, men in overalls and the oil derricks that once dotted the Venice landscape.
At the mural’s center is a pleasant-looking old man: Abbot Kinney, the visionary developer who brought Venice into being in the early 1900s. Behind him looms the now-vanished roller coaster known as “the Race Through the Clouds.”
Gregory Martin, a 53-year-old artist in line to mail a package, rattled off a bunch of Venice history tied to the mural. The roller coaster, he told me, is featured in the novel “Death Is a Lonely Business,” by Venice-raised Ray Bradbury, set in the seedy, declining Venice of the 1950s.
“It would be a drag if they closed this place down,” Martin said.
Martin told me he doesn’t believe in huge deficits, or in the idea that government should coddle people, as in a European welfare state. But he doesn’t want to dismantle essential services either.
“It’s a question of finding balance,” Martin told me. “There’s too much money in politics. One percent of the people have the ear of our legislators. The other 99% don’t count.”
Talking to customers at the Venice post office, I got the sense that the American people are getting wise to the whole situation. How could they not be?
The evidence that the affluent and connected are sacrificing less than the less-affluent and the unconnected is overwhelming.
Consider these two, largely unnoticed news stories from the last few weeks. First, the L.A. City Council voted to increase the sewer fees on our water bills by 77%. Then, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for exempting car dealers from business taxes. In other words, sell cars and make a profit and we’ll lower your taxes — but if you’re just an ordinary working stiff, we’ll increase them.
This is an old, largely ignored story. With each passing year, homeowners pay a larger share of California’s property taxes than businesses do, according to a report last year by the California Tax Reform Assn. And the federal income tax burden has been shifting from corporations to individuals since the 1960s, as detailed in the ongoing work of investigative reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele.
In Venice, the left and the right are united in defense of their post office, from aging hippies to up-and-coming homeowners, said Lucks, of the Neighborhood Council. “We let the Postal Service know that no one gets away with much in this community,” Lucks told me.
In Venice, as elsewhere in California and the U.S., people will fight back.