The Laundromat Litmus Test

If your city makes it difficult for residents to accomplish simple tasks like washing their clothes, you've got a problem.

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So your clothes are dirty. The hamper is overflowing. No big deal right? The washer and dryer are in the closet. Or maybe you have to lug them downstairs, but nevertheless, laundry machines are never too far away. Unless you're me and living in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, without the rental machines that cost way too much to rent. I tried to put it off, but I knew eventually I’d have to trek out to the laundromat.

Most bona fide urban dwellers either have machines in the basement or they have a nearby (read: walking distance) laundromat that they can use. Yet, here in Greensboro, there are no real downtown laundries. The closest one, near a gas station, with free dryers, just happened to be out of order on Sunday. (After this revelation, I took advantage of being out in the car and got a breakfast biscuit- another only-in-a-car-dependent "luxury.") I then went to the laundry/bar near campus. It looked dreary, so I drove on past it. After circling through another laundry parking lot where I saw questionable looking men (as a woman, I don’t take too many chances. I hate to label folks on looks, but these men looked like prunes and not in a good way). I finally settled on a place with older machines next to an Ace Hardware store. It was a very diverse crowd, the machines were very clean to be so old and it only cost me $9 to do the bulk of my laundry.

There are a lot of issues and lessons when it comes to doing laundry here in the Greensboro. Here are the major ones:

Non-drivers with no laundry machines are really out of luck. Not completely, there’s always loading laundry on the bus. I’m sure folks do it in other places. However, where I live, going to a public laundromat (versus one in the basement of a building) signals even more than the act of being on the bus in the first place that something may be amiss. None of these stereotypes should even be a factor. Going to do laundry should just be going to do laundry. Only, instead of owning machines, you rent them and not for $45 a month.

Assuming that everyone living downtown is affluent enough to have their own machines is a failure in logic. There should be more chances to share machines at my apartment complex. After all, laundry is for many, not just myself, a bi-monthly or monthly exercise. Also, if enough people have dry cleaning, a managed apartment complex or condo building could either operate its own dry cleaners/laundromat or make special arrangements with a nearby one. I think it’s great that we have the option to hook up machines, but the $45 per month rental fee for those who don’t could be better used to provide professional laundry services or self-serve laundry. Or even better, provide dry cleaning and automatically provide laundry machines, like my old apartment in Durham did.

The laundromat is one of the most diverse spaces of commerce. I consider it a space of commerce because I had to pay for the use of my machines. However, this is more of a service than a place that encourages mass consumption such as a Walmart or even a mall/lifestyle center. Anyway, you can meet all types of people from all walks of life. You can also take time away from your busy schedule and dig into a book or writing as you wait for your clothes to wash and dry. It is this part of the experience that turns the laundromat into a great third space and what I enjoyed most about my experience.

Ultimately, I learned that there is no shame in going to the laundromat. I knew that anyway, but being in a place that cultivates that shame makes it tough. I did my laundry in 3 short hours (as compared to 5 to 10 when using home machines). I caught up on reading. I saw people that I wouldn’t normally see. And I got one step closer to actually being urban.

Photo credit: dutourdumonde /Shutterstock

This post originally appeared on The Black Urbanist, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Kristen Jeffers is the Black Urbanist. In her quest to create real community, she writes observations on every element, built, un-built, real and sometimes unreal from a North Carolina city that was nearly written off the map as far as the modern economy was concerned.