Laundromat Urbanism

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The growing pile of clothing stacked in miss-matched plastic baskets on the southeast corner of the bedroom looked like something out of a delinquent student’s college dormitory. I’m not sure why I let my laundry reach such visually displeasing quantities, but did know it was going to take me a solid day of washing my clothes in the single washer and drier that occupied the basement of our apartment building. And that’s if none of the other tenants in the 5 dwellings attached to our unit didn’t have the same idea. By the way, for all of you home owners reading this right now, thinking “See! See! This is why having a house is better,” I haven’t gotten to the good part yet.

“I’m gonna go to the laundromat tonight,” I texted my wife Amanda after I got out of work. I can’t recall the text back but it was something like “Umm…OK?” I assume she was understandably puzzled by why I would choose to go to the laundromat when I could just get the laundry done over a few nights downstairs and still enjoy the comforts of home. But with multiple bins of dirty laundry staring me in the face, I just wanted to get it all done at once. So I stuffed my towers of textiles into my sub-compact car (this would have been quite the feat on bike) and drove the mile to the location appropriately named “Dirty Laundry.”

I had not visited a laundromat in probably a decade. I figured it wouldn’t be a quarters situation anymore, and thankfully I was right. But the dozen or so signs instructing how to acquire and purchase a payment card, how to use each machine and where everything was had me pause for a moment, which probably prompted another customer to smile at me from the other side of the room and shout “first time here?”

Relieved, I replied that it was. The nice woman dropped what she was doing and walked me through the process, even giving me tips on the best settings for the machines. “If you set the driers to high you can have your clothes dry in 20 minutes, cuz they spin both ways ya see…”

I thanked the young woman and spoke with her intermittently while our respective clothes were churning in the machines. A couple other people came in… we smiled and nodded, said hi, nothing too involved, just social pleasantries. In about an hour and a half, my laundry was done and I headed home. I had a very positive experience.

About a week and a half later, my wife was faced with the same dilemma of a growing pile of laundry. While previously skeptical, she asked “you want to go to the laundromat with me?” With it being time to wash a few loads again myself, I said yes.

We piled our soiled clothes into the car and headed over to Dirty Laundry. This time the owner was there, diligently cleaning and occasionally striking up a conversation with other customers, most of whom she seemed to know. She connected with my wife and I, cheerfully welcoming us and asking if we lived in the area. We chatted with the owner several times during the visit, as she and my wife hit it off with some light conversation.

Fast forward to this week, when my wife and I both needed to do laundry again. Once more, we decided to forego the machines in the basement for Dirty Laundry. Shortly after we arrived, a couple came in, obviously for the first time. My wife, now an expert on activating a pay card and using the machines, was happy to show the couple the ropes, just like the young lady had shown me on my maiden visit. Amanda is very much a homebody who enjoys relaxing evenings on the couch reading and watching TV over public events and encounters. But in the laundromat, she cheerfully chatted up the couple, as well as the part-time employee who was working that day.

I had forgotten what a delightfully social event simply going to the laundromat could be. While I speak at great length about the power of spontaneous encounters and how urban environments foster this construct, my wife and I live in a very “urban lite” area on the border of the city and the very nice exurb of Brighton. While we are close to everything, our apartment complex is surrounded by a residential neighborhood to our east, the beautiful Olmstead-designed Highland Park to our west and northwest, and a retirement community to the south. And while the vibrant South Wedge neighborhood lies just an 8-minute bike ride away, and beautiful Park Ave. about a 12-minute bike ride away, I would not really call where we live “walkable.” Sure, there are scads of sidewalks and nice places to walk everywhere, but if we need groceries or want to hit a restaurant or bar in an approachable amount of time, a bike or a car is usually necessary. As a result, even with our apartment-dwelling, pro-Rochester lifestyle, we don’t often have the opportunity to have spontaneous encounters like we would if we lived in a dense urban setting.

As odd as it sounds, our trips to the laundromat have made me realize how much I miss that element, and how important it is. As most Americans drive to work, drive home, drive to a soccer game or to get groceries, then come home and complete tasks like laundry in-house, there are so few chances for surprisingly fulfilling encounters with other individuals outside of the family. As Charles Montgomery explains in the book Happy City, these types of peripheral encounters that occur outside of our home life are healthy, as they give us a positive feeling of connectivity to and responsibility for our communities and the people in them. While a strong and formal base around family and friends is important to our mental and physical well-being, so is the power of the spontaneous, lighthearted encounter or exchange with a stranger on the street, or in this case, in the social environment of the barber shop, the craft store or even the local laundromat. And when all of these are connected by walkability, simply traversing the distance between home and these establishments can fuel these healthy encounters.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of saying that spontaneous encounters are good for us, and these encounters are maximized in urban settings. But as much of an urbanist as I have become, I think it’s important to share the little real-world reminders of why building a life that welcomes casual human interactions, even on the surface level, are so important. While sometimes we are exhausted trying to mitigate our work life and home life, exposing ourselves to peripheral encounters is healthy for us physically and psychologically, and we must move forward to embrace the positives that these opportunities afford us.