'It Just Looks So Bad.' One Man's Mission to Clean Up a Local Post Office

Bill Dobbs takes it upon himself to pick up litter and pull weeds around the Canal Street Station post office. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 03, 2020

Bill Dobbs couldn’t take it anymore. The terra cotta facade of the Canal Street Station post office, a nationally recognized historic landmark at 380 Canal, had become a half-block-long canvas for graffiti scrawl. The unsightliness spurred him to action. Dobbs a longtime Soho resident, spoke to postal clerks, called elected officials, persuaded local media to write about the problem, and reached out to anyone he could in search of solutions.

“I made calls to friends and I'd say, ‘I’ve lost my mind.’ They said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said I’m trying to get the graffiti off the post office.”

And indeed he did.

On Tuesday, Aug. 24, the week after his campaign began, Dobbs discovered a worker wiping away the paint. “I rode by on my bike and, wow, where did this guy come from?” he recalled. “And the next day they had three or four people.”

A supervisor from the Church Street Station, 90 Church, had dispatched his custodians to undo the damage. By Friday, Aug. 29, one man was on the job and much of the work was done, though faint ghosts of the spray paint and tags here and there remained. At the far west end of the wall, Frank Fernandez was applying paint remover and floor wax stripper. “It’s doing a decent job,” Fernandez said. “It could be better.”

The Trib met up with Dobbs outside the post office on the following Monday, Aug. 31, as he surveyed the building, a 1937 project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

“The progress is very heartening and terrific to see,” he said, while noting that some graffiti remained. And he still worries about the long-term effects of power washing on the paint-absorbent terra cotta, should the workers return to complete the job. 

But it soon became clear that Dobbss clean-up concerns extend beyond the building’s walls. As it happens, he had been there the day before, pulling weeds from along the structure’s black base on the Canal Street side. And now, grabbing a discarded Marlboro box from a standpipe, and picking up a broken Heineken bottle from an overgrown and littered tree pit outside the entrance, his attention turned to the sorry conditions nearby.  

“It just looks so bad,” he said of the high weeds and curbside trash. “Don’t you just want to get a broom and a bucket?”

Then there’s the matter of a raised slab of sidewalk nearby. “That’s a serious tripping hazard, and I’m sure it’s a legal issue,” he said. He questioned why the U.S. Postal Service appears exempt from maintaining the grounds around its building, conditions that would result in heavy fines for a building or store owner. 

(In response to questions from the Trib about conditions on and around the Canal Street station, U.S.P.S. spokesman Xavier Hernandez said in a statement that the Postal Service strives “to maintain our facilities in good condition for our customers. To that end, we will continue to work to address issues at the Canal Street Post Office. While we maintain the facility and postal grounds, we also share the concern for sidewalks and passerby littering in the area.”) 

Dobbs, who prefers to keep his age and other personal information to himself (and only reluctantly allowed the quick photo above), said he’d like others to join his campaign to clean up the area, and suggested a possible “friends” group for the building. “It needs somebody for a few minutes twice a day and it would be under control,” he said. “If I knew somebody was going to follow up, I would help.” 

Dobbs invites volunteers to email him at duchamp@mindspring.com.