By Deborah London Wright
It doesn’t get much more down to earth than dirty clothes. Since 2003 dedicated church members across the country have been helping low-income families and individuals with the wash. The practice started in California when someone asked a homeless man what would make a difference in his life.
“If I had clean clothes,” he replied, “I think people would treat me like a human being.”
That conversation led to an outreach program called Laundry Love. Spearheaded by Episcopal congregation Ventura, CA, it’s been embraced by over 70 churches, synagogues and mosques nationwide.
Following the golden rule, congregations reach out to those who struggle with basic household tasks. Armed with quarters and detergent, they partner with local laundromats, to turn that everyday chore into an opportunity for community building. Strangers become friends over the folding table, and hardworking folks in need get to take a little time off from the daily grind.
It’s as much about time as it is about Tide. Struggling single moms get some precious hours to spend with their kids. Some Laundry Love franchises even set up a play station in the laundromat, or bring games so parents can engage with their kids.
Some locations offer a free hot meal, or a support group for moms while the laundry is done.
With this program, a bland room filled with churning appliances and folding stations becomes a gathering place where (a la Cheers) everybody knows your name.
In just a few years, Laundry Love has blossomed into organic pop-up community centers numbering in the hundreds across the country. Each program has its own spin, reflecting the unique nature of that neighborhood. And this work benefit those being served, as well as those who do the washing-and-folding their new-found neighbors. As one parishioner put it, “It’s just another way of bringing folks into the fold.”
Check out Laundry Love for a list of their current locations, or to learn how to launch this program in your town.
According to Brian Wallace, CEO of the Coin Laundry Association, laundromats are “one of the few remaining places where people congregate.” And sometimes that means providing drinks and entertainment.
Laundromat as Lounge and News Hub
In New York city—where people with washer/dryers in their apartments are as rare as unicorns—to make washing clothes insanely social, and even glamorous. Celsious in Williamsburg, Brooklyn sports an outdoor patio and organic coffee bar, while Greenpoint’s Sunshine Laundromat offers pinball machines for those with itchy fingers. In West Harlem, the appliance-maker LG offers a laundry lounge with flat-screen TVs and laptops.
Retailers are creating laundry spin offs, too. American Eagle Outfitters’ in Union Square, has a new “laundry wall,” where NYU undergrads study or hang out in the studio bar.
But it’s not just Manhattan that’s gone trendy. The Sit & Spin Laundry Lounge in Big Sky, Montana bills itself as a “laundry bistro” with “culturally relevant” cocktails and even offers an orange, white and blue shot called the “Tide-Pod.”
Laundromats are becoming cultural centers, too.
The Laundromat Project in New York transforms underserved neighborhoods into art and learning spaces. This group is turning artists into community activists and providing a forum for people to tell their stories. Read about For Lizania Cruz, a graphic designer from the Dominican Republic, who worried about the way the national media was obsessed with border walls and caravans. “What would it look like if people actually controlled their own stories? What it would look like in physical space?” Her resulting project, We The News, collects personal stories about race and migration. And to get them out into the world, Cruz has put a new spin on the newsstand, handing these stories out at laundromats and local restaurants.
The World’s Largest Laundromat, in Berwyn, Illinois, hosted a National Literacy Summit last year, and holds pizza nights counseling immigrants on community services that can help ease them into a new life.
Washing and the Origin of Gossip
Editors note: Don’t forget the long history of Laundry as a source of local news. For centuries washday was a time for catching up with friends and sharing a bit of gossip. This word evolved from god sib, referring to a godparent who was concerned with the welfare of a child. The term had nothing to do with airing dirty little secrets. Instead it referred a well-meaning conversation about helping out one’s family or friends. Gossip was women’s way of taking care of things. Laundry day was a time to find out who needed a shoulder to cry on, some extra food, help with household chores, or caring for a sickly child.
Those age-old bonds were broken with the advent of time-saving appliances and the siloing of women into suburban homes. In Woman’s Work is never Done: A History of American Housework, Susan Strasser writes about the camaraderie that buoyed up women’s friendships until the mid-20th century. “Women who had once compared their wash over back fences, or the clotheslines they strung up across alleys, in a day of grueling labor that nonetheless provided the company of other women, often put non-automatic machines on porches in the summer where they could call out to friends. Those without basement space hung out even in the winter. The permanently installed automatic washer and dryer, however, brought the work inside, isolating women in their houses and denying them the companionship that had on enlivened washday, compensating for the woes of the chore they hated most.”
Deborah London Wright, MDiv, served as Associate Pastor of Calvary Church in San Francisco and on the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness. She now specializes in bringing adaptive change to congregations by focussing on new community service models like Laundry Love.