The Midwest embraces a galaxy of small towns, broadcast across the countryside like seed, each a little civilization unto itself. All exist for some economic reason -- as a farm town, a market town, a mining town, a little factory town. Most were founded about 150 years ago and grew up around institutions -- the school, stores, the bank, churches, the post office -- that were both symbols of that civilization and places where the townspeople met to do business, to socialize, or just to talk and swap news.
Most of these towns have been shrinking for fifty or a hundred years, as the economy changed and their young people went away and didn't come back. As the towns slowly evaporated, so did the institutions. The school closed, consolidated into another school in a bigger town next door. As stores closed, so did the bank. As parishioners left, churches shuttered.
Until finally, there was almost nothing left but the post office, still tidy, still official, still flying the American flag, still proclaiming that the town had its own zip code and, hence, an identity. It was real, and it was special. The government said so.
But now, the U.S. Postal Service, beset by rising costs and competition from the likes of UPS and email, has announced it is considering closing some 3,600 of its 32,000 post offices around the country, about one-fourth of them in the Midwest. There will be a 60-day comment period, and then the final closings will be announced. Some may be spared, a spokesman said, but the final number of closings "will be a lot closer to 3,600 than to zero." A state-by-state list of post offices under consideration is available here.