Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As a new photo project shows, these places aren’t just bright and slightly battered spots to clean clothes—they’re community hubs where people linger and make connections.
Sometimes in a city, it’s the things you pay least notice to that turn out to have the most character. Take, for example, London’s launderettes (known as laundromats in the U.S.).
Present on the main streets of most of the city’s low and middle income neighborhoods, these workaday establishments are the sort of place you might walk past daily without really looking at. Give them a second look, however, and you’ll often see something fascinating: not just a bright and slightly battered late 20th century appearance, but also places that are community hubs where people linger and make connections.
It’s a desire to record and celebrate these unsung but distinctive places that led photographer Joshua Blackburn to start a plan to photograph every launderette in London. While still in its infancy, Blackburn’s Instagram account (coinop_london) should eventually visit each of the more than 3,000 do-you-own-laundry facilities in the city. It’s a timely cataloguing of businesses who, due to social change and rising rents, are increasingly on the way out.
Launderettes are part of the long list of businesses catering to lower income Londoners being squeezed out in favor of places that turn a bigger profit—such as estate agents and cafes in wealthier areas; bookies and payday loan shops in poorer ones.
So what is the appeal of these slowly disappearing places for Blackburn? Part of it, he says, is simply aesthetic. “Launderettes are full of bright colors, geometric shapes and strong designs that I can't take my eye off. There’s also this really distinctive typography, and the fact that the places are humanized and given a distinct personality by their owners and customers.”
More importantly, launderettes are notably different from other main street business in Britain. Unlike shops, they are places for people to linger, where time must be filled and a rest taken as your laundry is washed.
“Of course, you can do a service wash [where you hand over your laundry to someone else to take care of]” says Blackburn “but there are plenty of people who will just sit there, with a book, with their phone, with a friend or a fellow customer. There is a connection there that is happening, that's interesting, warm and affirming. I took a photo above of two guys who were just running through life issues—marriage and stuff. They saw each other once a week and had the place as their chat spot, and I think that’s unique and cool.”
Looking at Blackburn’s cheerful images of places imbued with some human warmth, it’s instinctive to hope that some of these useful community hubs endure a little longer.