When a fire broke out on Bunker Hill Street at the old laundromat building on a frigid morning in December 2016, few thought about what they would do to wash their clothing.
The building in question housed the last laundromat in Charlestown, and after the building was re-built, for various economic reasons, the family laundry operator could not return and the space became a private daycare center in mid-2018. That changeover meant the only remaining laundromat in the Town was gone – with the last one on Main Street going out in 2017 when Monument Restaurant expanded and opened.
It also meant extreme hardship for thousands of residents, particularly senior citizens and residents of the Bunker Hill Housing development, that do not have washer and dryer facilities in their homes or buildings. Almost 18 months removed from the loss of the business, many residents are struggling to do their laundry, and there are reports that young kids are being bullied for showing up to school or activities without clean clothes.
It’s a problem no one could foresee, but has ramifications that touch on everything from gentrification to race to transportation issues.
For those not in the situation, the problem is virtually invisible to them, and it’s hard to figure out how people are coping. For the most part, many people ask friends or family to use their machines. However, others travel to Somerville or the North End on foot or by bus – an expensive, time-consuming and difficult journey.
“I know some of our youth are doing their laundry at their friend’s house and other youth appear to be in unclean clothes more than ordinarily since the laundromat has gone,” said Ginaya Greene-Murray, of the Charlestown Coalition.
Crystal Galvin of the Kennedy Center said she has seen that residents, particularly in Bunker Hill, are struggling to deal with the loss of that service.
“Lack of laundry facilities create unique challenges for families and seniors,” she said. “Since the loss of the Bunker Hill Street laundromat, many residents have had to travel near and far to access a facility. Accessibility and lack of overall resources mean that many are left to wash clothes by hand or rely on the generosity of friends and neighbors with in-home machines. Low income seniors may be eligible for a laundry service, but many are forced to pay a co-pay. In my experience, residents are unable to afford a washing machine are forced to spend more money on the cost of travel and fees at the laundromat. Cleary it’s cheaper to own a machine, but that is a real struggle for folks.”
She added that they have seen in increase in problems like poor hygiene, absenteeism and bullying because of the laundry issue.
“Laundry is a chore that we all endure, but I would like to challenge readers to consider the impact on the low-income community,” she said. “Access to laundry facilities has become a privilege.”
Mayoral Liaison Quinn Locke said the loss of the laundromat has been one of the biggest issues he has heard since taking the position in Charlestown. He said there is a huge portion of the community that calls him frequently on the issue, and another portion of the community that doesn’t even know it’s an issue.
“Many people in Charlestown are lucky enough to have laundry in their house or buildings,” he said. “Many other people aren’t as lucky and don’t have anywhere to go. When that last laundromat burned down, no one was thinking about where they would go to wash their clothes. When it suddenly wasn’t there, it was a shock to everyone. When it comes down to it, the fact that a lot of people have to leave the neighborhood and travel far distances is insane…A lot of people in Charlestown would have no idea this was happening. They would go on with their lives having no idea so many were struggling. As someone who has lived in the neighborhood all my life, knowing that people are struggling to wash their clothes is frustrating.”
He said the City is doing all it can, but they cannot open a laundromat and have had trouble inducing business owners to come to Charlestown. Whether it’s due to the rents, the lack of parking or startup costs, no one has answered the call. He said the City’s Economic Development team is well-aware of the issue, and any laundry operator looking to expand in Boston is apprised of the situation in Charlestown.
“Our office has heard loud and clear that a laundromat is not only wanted, but needed here,” he said.
Young people seem to see the issue more closely.
Three youth from the Turn It Around program at the Charlestown Coalition said they know there is bullying associated with it, and they also see it as another symptom of gentrification and classism – replacing a low-income person’s need of a laundromat with the need of a higher-income person’s need for private daycare. All said they have heard of people traveling to laundromats in Somerville, Everett and even Revere – with one youth saying her family used to go to Woburn to wash clothing at a relative’s house.
“I think the bullying problem is real,” said Natania Sanchez, who indicated she does have machines in her home, but knows others that don’t. “Kids are so cruel nowadays. I’ve even experienced it with my siblings, but I also know that a lot of kids are experiencing it now too. It’s sad because they can’t help it. They can’t help their family make money to help them travel so far to wash their clothes. I feel so bad because these kids are so innocent and they don’t know. Others point it out to them, and it’s cruel.”
Fatima Fontes, an outspoken college student in the program who grew up in Charlestown, said she remembers going to the laundromat before it burned down. It was hard work, she said, carrying 50-pound laundry bags and bringing them home, sometimes waiting for hours to have the wash completed. However, she said her family now has a washer and dryer, but they aren’t the only ones using it.
Many, she said, ask if they can come over to do the wash.
“It’s really a big issue,” she said. “There really are a lot of people in the community that are trying to cope. People are taking those 50-pound bags on the bus all the way to Somerville, Everett and even Revere…There are many constantly going to neighbors to do their laundry. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a neighbor that will help you.”
Serennity Figeroa said they now have a washer and dryer, but before they had to travel to her uncle’s house in Woburn.
“It’s takes time and you have to go there based on someone else’s schedule,” she said. “You can’t just decide to go do your laundry. They tell you when. Plus, at someone’s house, the water bill is something they will have to pay for, and that has to be considered too.”
Fontes said she recalls the day that the laundromat burned down, and she also remembers when they were re-building the building. She said she always assumed the business would return, but was shocked to see baby cribs and daycare items. She said she immediately realized that was going to be a problem, and for her it was another class issue.
“There are a lot of people that have washers and dryers, but there are also a lot of people that don’t have them,” she said. “The daycare isn’t something anyone in Bunker Hill can afford. It seemed to me like they took away a benefit from lower-income people, and gave a benefit to higher-income people. It’s shocking that there is literally no laundry in one square mile of Charlestown.”
George Georges, who owns the Bunker Hill building and operated the laundry for several years, said he did everything he could to bring an operator in, but it was not economically feasible.
“There is a big void,” he said. “When I was renovating the building, I put out the word there was space there for a laundromat as of right. We had two inquiries. One was serious, but the cost of getting the equipment and the insurance was very prohibitive. Plus, the increase in the cost of water and water conservation measures on the new machines added to the cost. It’s a substantial investment now, much more than it was 20 years ago. There really wasn’t much interest. With those costs, I really don’t see anyone coming in and starting one up unless it’s subsidized.”
Locke said it is something he is really concerned about, and it’s an issue that no one anticipated.
“It’s one of the most frequent questions I get,” he said. “The reality is there no answer to give to people. I’m in a job where your goal is to get to an answer, and this is frustrating because there isn’t an answer. I’m happy to tell people ‘no’ when I have to, but I can’t even do that with this one.”