My beautiful laundromat, grocer, library…

While some espouse the merits of a clothesline, I like laundromats. Stories about them stick in my mind.

Early British suffragettes did some of their best community organizing in the town laundries, away from the strong pitching arms of visiting farm boys who lobbed rotten produce at them when the women stood on the back of wagons at village markets calling for the vote. Describing this scene in her autobiography, Hannah Mitchell, a working class suffragette, explained how community laundries were invariably a safer space where they had a legitimate right to gather.

Or, there is the kindergarten teacher who could not convince local families to visit the school. So she took a pile of books to the nearby residential building’s laundromat, sat down on a stool and began reading out loud. Drawn in, the children loved this reprieve from their long, dull waits, and families began to trust her. It’s a technique well-recognized in community development circles.

Even Jane Jacobs reflected this lesson in her critique of the “tower-in-a-park” style of public housing, according to author Alice Sparberg Alexiou. In a speech at Harvard University in 1956, Jacobs described the basement laundromats as the “heart” of the buildings, the only adult social area, lying in the bowels of the buildings. Laundry rooms are one of the few spaces with the buildings where tenants have any sort of extended contact.

Laundromats are fundamentally social places – third places, according to sociologist – places, outside our homes and workplaces, where we meet each other.

According to the New York Times, laundromats are becoming scarcer, as are many local businesses.

E.B. White once described the elements of his mid-century New York city neighbourhood:

no matter where you live in New York, you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar, a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen, a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drug store, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.

It was this commercial chaos which inspired Jane Jacobs, soon afterwards.

Jacobs joined the board of the Union Settlement Association, a New York neighbourhood house, after seeing the good work it did documenting the shifts in East Harlem as housing projects were introduced. One of Union Settlement’s social workers, Ellen Lurie, documented the effects in detail.

Lurie described the effect of the disappearance of local stores which had been razed,

Shopping, which was a time in which neighbours met, now is a long, impersonal, tiring business, especially with children in tow. (Alexiou, Jane Jacobs Urban Visionary, 2006 — a great book)

Canadian research is showing how, since the 1970s, grocery stores have been growing larger and more dispersed with urban environments, and because of restrictive covenants are not returning to urban neighbourhoods. We now have to go further to bigger stores to buy our food among strangers.

There is push-back. The call for walkable neighbourhoods has focused on these dynamics. Chris Smith, for instance, cleverly describes his 5-, 10- and 20- minute neighbourhood in Portland Oregon. Green Changemakers offers tips regularly on “living responsibly.” The American Institute of Architects is even bringing this design sensibility to offices and seniors’ housing.

A walkable neighbourhood ensures two important ingredients of a strong community:

  • access to service, especially to those among us who cannot range far, such as seniors, families with young children, and low-income people, and
  • strengthened social connections which allow us to work together for a common good.

If, as Lewis Mumford said of suburbia, it is “a collective effort to lead a private life,” an urban neighbourhood is impoverished without its laundromats, coffee shops, corner stores, public libraries and other spaces where we meet each other.

Supermarkets as Neighborhood Centers: Vision For a More Walkable America

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3 Responses to “My beautiful laundromat, grocer, library…”

  1. Great post! Thanks so much for this unique perspective on the laundromat as an often overlooked third place.

    As for grocery stores, I also concur. I recently had a discussion on grocery shopping where I said that I loved shopping for groceries, but hated ‘grocery shopping.’

    I meant that I loved going from bakery to fruit stand to fish monger, talking with the owners, who remember my preferences, as well as running into my neighborhood and other customers (ie the ‘community) who know my name.

    On the other hand, I dread going to soulless mega-markets and wandering down aisle fileld with processed foods being ‘helped’ by ‘minimum wagers’ with no interest or care for the food they are shoving half heartedly on the shelves.

    Like

  2. Nicely stated. Whether in urban or rural communities, laundromats that function as “third places” are important to community building. I’ve been particularly interested in how, in some places, laundromats help introduce immigrants into the community.

    Like

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