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January 18,  2009

Postal Service has left us geographically challenged

In a series of radio commercials a local business touts its new location. After giving the address, the narrator stridently proclaims that the firm is "still in Wilmington." Search as you might, you'll not find that address in Wilmington -- because it ain't there. You can't help but wonder if the firm is still paying city wage and-or property tax. Her insistent tone prompted a random study of the false directions various businesses are giving prospective customers. It's downright surprising the number of suburban roads being extended well beyond their reach -- Concord Pike, Kirkwood Highway, Governor Printz Boulevard, Foulk Road, to name a few which never touch the city. And, in the midst of all that confusion, there are more than a few references to non-existent "North Wilmington" when meaning Brandywine Hundred and not the part of the city which used to be known as the Ninth Ward. You never hear of Bryn Mawr, Haverford or Paoli being confused with West Philadelphia. Wilmington has clearly defined boundaries and the General Assembly several years ago wrapped them in a veritable iron curtain by virtually eliminating ability of the state's largest city to annex territory as the likes of Newark and Middletown have done with abandon in recent years.

What's disturbing is that this local geographic illiteracy has become pervasive not just among advertisers -- whose pronouncements most of us have long since learned to discount -- but also among the populace. When called upon to explain themselves, folks usually say Wilmington is the destination specified on their mail. Actually, most say WilmingTIN, not WilmingTON, but that's another mater. The root of the situation at hand is none other than the good old reliable U.S. Postal Service. Since the advent of wholesale automation into its operations, the service, unable for obvious reasons to outsource key components, has settled instead for corrupting the sense of local identity. Fill out any of those ubiquitous address forms which come at us from all sides and you'll find yourself confronted by a line which calls for the identity of your "city" rather than the post office which serves you despite the fact that nowadays the majority of the urban population doesn't live in any city. And how often does the machine-readable 'DE' show up in lieu of the more respectful 'Del.' abbreviation in applications where there's no need to include a connecting zipcode?

Geographic illiteracy, indeed? It not only exists, it's contagious. Ironically, even the U.S. Postal Service is not immune. Here in the middle of January, we received a Christmas card which had been returned to our friends who sent it with the notation that the address was unknown. The address was rendered perfectly, except for the zip code. We suspect those five digits are all that's required to properly direct the mail. If the postmaster -- whose office, incidentally, is not in Wilmington either -- will admit it, we who advocate truth-in-addressing will prevail.

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