One day last summer the phone company called Marilyn Katz to say that her service would be terminated because her phone bill was four months overdue. The warning shocked Katz, a public-relations consultant who does much of her work over the phone. "I have six different lines between my home and office and I get five separate phone bills," says Katz. "I can't remember which bills I've paid; I'm totally dependent on the post office to deliver those bills. But for four months we never got the bills for one line. It was a nightmare."
This was not Katz's first mail-delivery problem. Katz lives in the 60640 zip code, which encompasses parts of Edgewater and Uptown and is serviced by the Uptown postal branch at 4850 N. Broadway--a target of complaints for years.
"Our block has had missed deliveries, late deliveries, days when there were no deliveries, and a postman making deliveries drunk," says Katz. "We had a mailwoman who wouldn't drop the mail in our box because she said her fingernails would get damaged. She just put the mail on the porch floor. At one point I hadn't received any New Yorkers for weeks. We called the subscription office, and they said that the post office had returned the magazine saying no one occupied our premises!"
Without realizing it, Katz and her neighbors had stumbled on a vexing, age-old post-office mystery: why can't the Uptown branch deliver the mail? "I am the third alderman in this ward who has had to struggle with the post office over lousy service out of the Uptown branch," says 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith. "There's a human and business cost to this that can only be measured in things like birthday parties missed because the invitations weren't delivered or health insurance that was dropped because people didn't get their premium notices. I've heard every excuse in the book from the post office, and I still don't know what's the matter with Uptown."
Postal officials say they intend to look into the problem, although some privately doubt it's as bad as residents say. "People tend to blame us for not delivering what they forgot or never intended to mail in the first place," says one official. "We're a convenient scapegoat. It's a lot easier to blame us than to say don't worry, the check's in the mail."
However, almost all outside observers agree that Uptown's record has been abysmal, particularly in comparison with nearby branches, which don't seem to attract as many complaints. In June 1990 more than 100 Edgewater residents attended a meeting organized by Smith to complain about poor service. "I'm tired of being a second-class citizen," bellowed one outraged resident.
"Much of the problem, as it was explained to us at that meeting, has to do with one or two bad mail carriers who can't be removed because of union seniority rights," says Smith. "At least that's what we were told." Not many residents buy that excuse. For one thing, all postal branches (even efficient ones) are governed by the same union contract. Besides, postal officials admit that they can transfer or suspend chronically inefficient carriers.
"There are more than one route which receive poor service in the 60640 zip-code area, so you can't brush it off on one or two bad carriers," says Katz. "The problem is systemic. It's the way the branch is managed. Managers seem to come and go at Uptown. They don't last long. I asked my carrier at work and he told me that Uptown is sort of the post office's Siberia. That's where they send all the bad eggs."
The biggest complaint among mail carriers has to do with Uptown's routes. "Uptown's got long walking routes," says one longtime mail carrier, who asked not to be identified. "The neighborhood is densely populated so you carry a lot of mail. And there's a lot of transiency, people moving in and out. You've got units in those four- and six-flats that change tenants all the time. It's a headache keeping track of them."
At the June meeting two years ago post-office officials promised to add a postal worker at the Uptown branch to act as a community liaison. But that liaison was never hired--as Katz quickly discovered when she called the Uptown branch with service complaints. "I called the post office to complain and I never got a straight answer," she says. "I spent half my time waiting on hold for someone to listen to me. Or they'd say, 'I'm sorry it's a minute past five, we can't talk to you now.' When I got the supervisor he'd say, 'We'll look into it,' but he never did."
Last fall Katz finally confronted a letter carrier. "I told her that we were having problems with the mail," says Katz. "She said, 'I don't know why you are having all these problems. No one else is.' I said 'We'll see about that.'"
So Katz distributed a survey to residents of several blocks surrounding her home. Seventy-nine responded; none was satisfied with postal service. "We asked people to score their service on a scale of one to ten with ten being the highest and one being the lowest," says Katz. "The median score was 3.4."
Respondents complained of misdirected mail, late deliveries, and "snotty" letter carriers. "One man had sent out invitations to his wife's 40th birthday party, but he never got any responses," says Katz. "He went to the postbox where he had mailed the invitations and they were still in the box."
One local not-for-profit organization almost lost a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts because an important letter was never delivered. "The National Endowment asked us to submit a revised budget for our grant, but we never got the letter," says Rita Simo, executive director of the People's Music School, at 4750 N. Sheridan. "I was lucky that I knew someone at the endowment who called me up and said, 'Where's your budget? You missed the deadline.' I faxed it to him right away. I wasn't going to try the mail again."
Working through the Lakewood-Balmoral Residents Council, Katz sent copies of her survey results to Chicago postmaster Ormer Rogers Jr. "We urgently need to talk with you about how to improve the state of our mail service," she wrote in a letter to Rogers on May 27.
Rogers never responded, so Katz wrote him again on June 25. In the meantime, after much pressing from Alderman Smith, Uptown branch manager Joseph Sanders agreed to meet with residents in early June. "Everybody just blew their stack," says Katz. "The post-office guys said, 'File complaint forms.' We said, 'We have, but they just go into a big black hole.'"
A week after the meeting Sanders (who could not be reached for comment) wrote Smith to "apologize for any and all inconveniences. From my analysis of [Katz's survey] I feel that a program of accountability in the areas mentioned will result in overall correction of the major concerns of our customers." Sanders specifically promised to investigate "all reports of service problems" and to punish "those employees who fail to perform satisfactorily [with] corrective action up to and including removal from the Postal Service."
Then, a few weeks ago, when I called to look into the problem, a representative of Rogers's office immediately called Smith and asked if the postmaster could meet with residents. "The postmaster wants to meet with Alderman Smith and the residents as soon as he can to get to the bottom of this," said Debra Hawkins, manager of communications for the Chicago post office. "I can't say for certain why the postmaster did not respond to their earlier requests for a meeting. The postmaster has a staff of people that he relies on to resolve these problems and somehow or other the letters didn't get to his attention."
Hawkins says she is not sure why the Uptown branch experiences so many delivery problems. "There is some underlying problem there," says Hawkins. "And we've got to get to the bottom of it."
Smith says she will ask the City Council to investigate the matter. "I don't want to hear any more excuses," says Smith. "It's not our job to figure out what's wrong with the post office; it's their job. But if they won't do it, maybe the council can force them."
In the meantime, Katz says mail delivery has improved a bit since the June meeting with Sanders. "We don't get too many misdeliveries anymore," she says. "And we usually get at least some mail delivered every day. What bothers me is that I will never know what letters I didn't get and I still can't be sure if I'm getting all of my mail even now. I now have most of my bills delivered to my office. No matter what they say, I don't trust them to get the mail to my house."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.