“In all my years of living in Manhattan, I have never met someone who has a washer/dryer in their apartment. Most of us think of these people as mythical unicorns. Like owning your own car.”
–– Jesse Richards’ response to the Quora question, How do people in Manhattan do laundry?
One person’s dirty laundry is another’s livelihood. Those of us in New York City not fortunate enough to own washers and dryers have to make do with the laundromat, a long-beloved urban fixture. Most self-service laundries are mom-and-pop establishments and as of 2010, NYC had over 2,500 of them.
Today that number is dwindling. To attract young working professionals, the city’s developers have been incorporating washers and dryers into apartment buildings, leaving the neighborhood laundromat with fewer customers. The slowdown is only made worse by the rise of on-demand laundry services like Cleanly and FlyCleaners, the brainchildren of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs forever obsessed with starting the next Uber of something.
Who can blame them? The typical neighborhood laundromat greets you with dull interiors, harsh lighting, long waits and quarter-eating machines, not to mention that the act of doing laundry is itself domestic drudgery. No wonder this multi-billion dollar industry has suffered a 20% nationwide decline since 2005.
But don’t throw in the towel just yet – these are only signs that the boring, uninviting New York laundromat scene is ready for a revamp.
Local laundry service providers are now compelled to come up with tactics that not only attract local clientele but also keep them coming back. If there’s any business that thrives solely on customer retention, it’s laundry. If the average person spends around two hours at their local laundromat, store owners might as well make that time enjoyable and even – just imagine – something to look forward to.
That’s why laundromats today are increasingly going a step further and doubling as something else – cafes, craft breweries and even cocktail lounges.
Celsious is a new outfit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that epitomizes the concept laundromat trend. Complete with an outdoor patio and organic coffee bar, it looks more like a wellness resort than a laundromat. Inside Greenpoint’s Sunshine Laundromat, pinball machines chime happily next to coin-operated washers and dryers. Brands too have caught on over the years – LG has a luxury laundry lounge in West Harlem with flat-screen TVs and internet-connected laptops for free access. A complimentary “laundry wall” in American Eagle Outfitters’ new concept store gives NYU undergrads in the Union Square area the opportunity to do their laundry for free and study or hang out in the studio bar. The new Sit & Spin Laundry Lounge in Big Sky, Montana is a “laundry bistro” that offers culturally relevant cocktails like the orange, white and blue Tide Pod shot.
Other efforts to make those two-some-odd hours of laundry worthwhile have been through community programming and civic engagement. The World’s Largest Laundromat, in Berwyn, Illinois, just hosted a National Literacy Summit in March, and continues to conduct immigration seminars and organize pizza nights every Wednesday. The Laundry Love initiative, with a presence in over 70 churches, mosques and synagogues around the country, helps the working poor out by providing free detergent, dryer sheets and quarters for machines. Supporters of the movement believe that they’re practicing the Biblical commandment in a real-time, actionable way. The Laundromat Project transforms laundromats in NYC’s underserved neighborhoods into informal art and learning spaces by organizing art workshops and community collaborations.
Through these efforts laundromats have become more than a mundane fixture in people’s lives. After coffeeshops, bars and general stores, says Brian Wallace, CEO of the Coin Laundry Association, they have the potential to be recognized as the third place for local residents and “one of the few remaining places where people congregate.” After all, laundromats, like bodegas, share a meaningful history with NYC. It makes sense for them to be redesigned, revitalized and celebrated.