The Tito Puente Post Office in East Harlem — a bustling, 40-year-old institution named after the greatest Latin jazz musician of the 20th century — is about to be shrunk to the size of, well, a postage stamp.
Seeking to cut costs and consolidate operations in the face of massive deficits, the U.S. Postal Service is putting a “For Sale” sign on the popular branch, which was called the Triborough Station until it was renamed for Puente in 2007.
Plans call for unloading the sprawling facility at 167 E. 124th St. as early as this year — and leasing a pint-sized building for postal operations, less than a quarter the size of the current space, to take its place a few blocks away.
At least one other uptown post office could land on the chopping block: The Washington Bridge Station, at 555 W. 180th St., is being considered as a possible candidate for consolidation or sale, USPS brass said.
The Puente facility, an 18,500-square-foot colossus that handles 38,500 pieces of mail daily, won’t close until a new home is secured for its replacement, which will occupy 4,200 square feet and handle just 3,300 pieces of mail every day, mostly for boxholders.
Retail operations are being “right-sized,” USPS real estate executive Joseph Mulvey wrote to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in a Dec. 31 letter that’s taped to the post office door.
Meanwhile, in three months, about 30 mail carriers based at Puente, who walk 24 postal routes in the neighborhood, will be transferred to the Lincolnton Station on E. 138th St. in an adjacent zip code nearly a mile away.
That poses safety risks for vulnerable seniors, children and other East Harlemites who say the presence of dozens of uniformed postal carriers walking in and out of the station has traditionally deterred crime in their immediate area.
“When I see a mailman, I know I’m safe,” said Rosario Gomez, 73, a retired nurse.
“Our seniors are not the most mobile, and this post office provides the safety, security and vibrancy in the area they need,” said Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez (D-East Harlem).
Pointing toward the Wagner Senior Center two blocks away, 64-year-old Harlem resident Shirley Bennett added, “It’ll be terrible…There are so many elderly people around the corner who depend on this station.”
Even the postal employees, whose jobs are secure, said they’re troubled by the move since the place is always busy and customer lines are long.
“It’s a bad thing happening…and the people we serve will pay,” said Pedro Ramos, 48, a clerk at a pickup window who’s worked at Puente for 22 years.
Postal officials say they face unsustainable deficits and declining volume because of e-mail and other technologies — and have no choice but to chop costs, scrap underutilized facilities and pare infrastructure.
“We’ve had to tighten our belt not one notch, but several notches,” said Connie Chirichello, the USPS spokeswoman for New York City.
The relocated mail carriers would still serve East Harlem from the Lincolnton Station. And if a sale goes through, customers could buy stamps, weigh mail and pick up letters at 1,840 post office boxes in the smaller retail facility, she said.
“We are not taking away any services to the community,” Chirichello added. “We are simply streamlining operations into a smaller space.”
And the Puente name will be transferred to the new mini-post office, she said.
That was enough to satisfy Tito Puente Jr., the son of the musical genius known as the “Mambo King,” who brought jazz, soul, salsa and Afro-Cuban and Caribbean sounds to worldwide audiences.
“Hey, we’re New Yorkers, we get around pretty good, we can buy stamps anywhere,” he said. “As long as my father’s iconic name stays on an El Barrio post office, it doesn’t matter where it is or how big it is.
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