Tuesday, August 27, 2013

An Ode to the Urban Laundromat

We've talked to photographers obsessed with capturing the city's vanishing newsstands, its disappearing bodegas, and its fading storefronts. Now we meet one who has taken on the photographic preservation of its diminishing laundromats.

Snorri Sturluson is an Icelandic photographer living in New York City. With Powerhouse Books, he recently published Laundromat, a collection of photos of the city's laundromats, all taken from 2008 to 2012, in all five boroughs. In addition, the Introduction to the book, written by author D. Foy, provides a detailed account of laundromat lore.

I asked the photographer a few questions about his work.

All photos by Snorri Sturluson

Q: What drew you to the laundromats of the city?

A: As a photographer my initial interest in a story or subject is usually visual. I found the design, the look, the colors, the similarities and the differences in the Laundromats in NYC intriguing. So that was the initial draw. As often happens in art, the project took over and formed its own narrative.

The real subtext of the Laundromats, the true spirit, if you will, started to reveal itself. The Laundromat as an "oasis of despair" as my friend D. Foy puts it in the afterword is what really became the story. A Laundromat is not where most people prefer to spend their time. If we can avoid going there we will (most of us, at least). So the book really shows this utilitarian layer of New York that I think is familiar to many but also hidden to others, and there's an invisible line drawn there that is a bit of a social divide. That's what I think the narrative became. The poorer people spend time at Laundromats, the richer can afford a different solution (there are, of course, exceptions to this).

Q: How do the laundromats of New York compare to those in your home country of Iceland?

A: There are no Laundromats in Iceland, which is partly what made them interesting to me in the first place.

Q: Why do you think the laundromat has been such a victim of gentrification?

A: I think it's all tied in with the fact that we are becoming more and more sanitized and insular as a culture. Our lives are increasingly lived behind closed doors, figuratively and symbolically in our virtual, online realities. The distance between people increases as their wealth increases, and having money introduces different lifestyles. The Laundromat represents an old way of life, one where you are forced to air your dirty laundry in public, rub shoulders with your neighbors, be exposed to their dirty laundry and have an uncomfortable "closeness" with their being, and vice versa.

There's also a simpler answer, Laundromats in their essence, are a utilitarian service with low margins and can't survive on higher rents. Therefore, they're doomed to vanish as the cost of living goes up in a neighborhood and the residents prefer Dry Cleaners, full service laundry, and have access to laundry services in their luxury condo buildings (new or renovated).

There are still a lot of Laundromats in New York City (thousands), but I have noticed that in affluent neighborhoods that used to be less so, they are hard to find. In the poorer, older neighborhoods they're all over the place. Also, newer housing developments (poor and rich) tend to have laundry facilities in the buildings, so it's not only gentrification that's doing the Laundromats in; e.g., in areas of all the Boroughs where there is a lot of low income housing projects, there are actually no Laundromats.

Q: What do you worry we will lose when all the laundromats have vanished from the city?

A: There's a lot of character in all small businesses. Mom and pop shops give any neighborhood a distinct "Main Street/Neighborhood Flavor." The more New York City loses those unique and eccentric places to national or global chains like Starbucks, Pinkberry, and Whole Foods, the more homogenized the city becomes. I don't know that the Laundromats as such play an important community role--maybe they do, it's hard to say--but the disappearance of Laundromats is definitely part of a larger trend of gentrification.

However, I'm not all doom and gloom in this respect, and my job is really not to judge the inevitable process of change. I have simply tried to capture a moment in time with my photographs and only time will tell what is lost, or gained.

You can buy the book directly from Powerhouse, or find it at your local independent book shop.


Ken Mac said...

Great idea for a book. I've always wondered why there is no national corporate laundromat chain? Dry cleaners yes ("One Hour Martinizing"), but no laundromat chain, for which I am thankful.

Gojira said...

Love the guy's name, he has the same moniker as the medieval Norse writer who wrote the prose eddas Tolkien cribbed many of his "Ring" names from.
(My anti-spam word is ctsniff???)

Pat said...

They serve as community gathering places, much like the streams in villages where women would gather to wash clothes and exchange news and gossip. (Was Maiden Lane, near Wall Street, one of these?) Someone I knew referred to a laundromat that stayed open late in the East Village as the "singles laundry." I met a man who met his fiancée while they were doing a wash, he asked her how he should fold his shirts. Decades ago, there was a laundry on E. 18th Street "Green Castle." It featured a bookshelf, a "dumb trade", where people could leave and take books to read. It also had a bulletin board as many laundromats still do today. It changed when there was no more self-service and you had to leave your laundry.

laura said...

housing projects for the poor have washers in the basement. thats why you dont see laundry mats. walk ups dont have laundry in general.

Scuba Diva said...

My landlord tried to rent out the basement of our tenement and got caught because it was against code, so he converted it into a laundry room; he had to make the rent on it somehow, and he probably makes more money on it this way than as an apartment.