They’re Taking Everything Away

They’re Taking Everything Away

Heidi Talavera knew her kids would be home in under four minutes if they let her know they had passed 34 Laundromat. Red Hook’s biggest and busiest, the laundromat stood on the same block longer than any of Talavera’s five children has been alive—her eldest is 14. With a full load to get through almost daily, she used to spend at least an hour of her day there. Last month, Talavera and other decades-long customers threw their clothes into one of 34’s 100 plus machines for the last time. The laundromat has closed shop. In a few months, the entire Lorraine Street lot it sits on will be razed. A residential high-rise will go up in its place.

The inside of 34 Laundromat was as uninspired as its name. Six rows of beige washers ran from the entrance to the back of the rectangular space, where a row of beige dryers stacked on top of each other lined the length of the rear wall. Here and there, green money plants wilted under fluorescent lights that shined on gray linoleum floors. 

Only the laundromat’s bright orange signage broke through the drabness with warnings to customers like: “Our dryers are HOT!” and “PARENTS… Kindly restrain your children from playing with the laundry cart, jumping the machines… Running into people etc.”

The laundromat was always vibrating with the hum of several machines—powerful appliances meant to handle the wardrobes of entire families who live across the street in the Red Hook Houses, New York’s second-largest public housing complex. 

Vanessa Parris was from one of those families. For her, 34 Laundromat held a lifetime of memories. As a kid, she used to play in the laundry carts, in full defiance of the orange signs. In middle school, she and her friends would hang out at the laundromat for hours after school playing on the arcade games it once had.

“I used to get in trouble over there,” she says.

As an adult she did what everybody else did there: laundry. Now, Parris has to haul her clothes five blocks through or around the vast Red Hook Houses complex to Hicks Mega Laundry, the closest of the two remaining laundromats in Red Hook. Both places are roughly a quarter of the size of 34 Laundromat.

Because it’s had to accommodate the former customers of the much bigger 34, Hicks has also been crowded lately. Waiting times for available machines can be long. 

“It’s bad,” vents Talavera. “It’s just really inconvenient.”

Convenience has been on everyone’s mind ever since 34 Laundromat closed. The same commercial block it was located on contained other businesses vital to the community: a 99 cent store where residents bought everyday necessities like school supplies; a bank; and a value grocery store—all now closed. The block is zoned for both commercial and residential use, so the residential building set to go up there will probably have businesses on the ground floor. But residents of the Red Hook Houses are skeptical that whatever the new building may house will be meant for them.

“In reality, the rent is so high you have to have a booming business to even put in there,” speculates Lina Vega, a former 34 customer. “I’m hopeful that maybe they will put another laundromat there, but, you know.”

With the businesses they rely on disappearing, residents of the Red Hook Houses have had to begin travelling outside the neighborhood and restructuring daily routines to procure basic necessities.

The loss of these seemingly prosaic commercial spaces may have deeper consequences for the psyche of locals. According to Dr. Regina Kenen, a sociologist and professor emeritus at the College of New Jersey, laundromats in particular can promote a feeling of community. Her past work studying laundromats in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s has shown that this is especially true in working class neighborhoods that have a solid ethnic identity as opposed to more diverse, middle-class neighborhoods. 

Kenen thinks that laundromats in affluent neighborhoods today may even be seeking to emulate the sense of togetherness and belonging that she observed in the Bay Area’s working-class Hispanic barrios.

“They are adding things like arcades, ping pong tables, coffee bars, childcare centers… all sorts of things to make it actually feel more like a community,” she says, talking about newer laundromats. “The laundromat by itself is very anonymous. But people in the barrio did not feel that way—they looked at it as a public space for them to gather in.”

But while new, hip laundromats are helping a generation of upwardly-mobile professionals find joy in the mundane, residents of the Red Hook Houses, almost all of whom are black and/or Hispanic, are seeing even the mundane disappear. This process was accelerated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. While initially devastating for Red Hook—the entire neighborhood flooded and tenants in the Houses lost power for weeks—the recovery efforts that followed ushered in a new wave of property developments. Before Sandy, gentrification had mostly been confined to a strip of cafes, artist studios, and bars on Van Brunt Street, several blocks removed from the Red Hook Houses. Now, lots directly facing public housing boast shiny-new townhouses and apartments.

Some residents of the Red Hook Houses feel their home is being encroached upon.

“They’re taking everything away,” lamented Stephanie Santos while she was picking up laundry from 34 Laundromat a few weeks before it closed.

The disconnect between the Red Hook Houses and the rest of the increasingly white neighborhood is nothing new. The divide is known to both dwellers of Red Hook and people who have studied the area. In the wake of Sandy, the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery launched the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program in 2014, a sweeping initiative that called for hundreds of millions of dollars to go towards flood-proofing Red Hook. 

Among the critical issues identified in the plan’s founding document, the authors noted the “lack of interaction and communication between Red Hook Houses residents and the neighborhood as a whole” as a vulnerability and obstacle to community resiliency. The program recommended spending $1 million to $10 million in recovery funds on a cultural center at the Red Hook Houses that would provide music, food, and cultural events, attracting residents from across the neighborhood.

For Karen Blondel, resident activist of the Houses and board member of Resilient Red Hook—the committee that took over the role of guiding the community reconstruction program—recommendations like these hold little meaning. She explains that such language is often used as a ploy to advance other projects on the committee’s agenda that would primarily benefit the rest of the neighborhood.

“When they write those cute little statements, that really means, ‘Hey, can we build a community microgrid on the public housing campus that serves us too?’” she says. 

The microgrid network Blondel refers to was conceived as a contingency measure in case of another Sandy-like event. During an outage, it will be able to independently power the Red Hook Houses as well as areas of the neighborhood outside the public housing complex. For this to happen, the Houses are to be saddled with two large generators that will help power a Red Hook-wide community microgrid that is also in the works. While she is not opposed to the idea of a community microgrid, Blondel argues that the generators’ location within the Red Hook Houses may pose a health risk to residents. 

Seven years after Sandy, many of the resiliency measures the city proposed for Red Hook, such as flood protection, have been scaled back or are behind schedule. The New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) own Sandy recovery program for the Red Hook Houses has also fallen short of its promises. The program originally called for the opening of 30 new commercial spaces throughout the Red Hook Houses. 

“It looked great,” recalls Blondel. 

In subsequent versions of the plan, however, that number was reduced to a handful of locations on the ground floor of one low-rise in the Houses.

Many things in the Red Hook Houses don’t go the way they’re supposed to, and this gets in the way of residents advocating for their own needs. In particular, Blondel points to the Red Hook Houses Tenants Associations—two councils elected by and for residents—as key agency tools that are being woefully mismanaged. This prevents residents of the Houses from effectively coordinating with outside organizations or from pushing for aspects of recovery and revitalization plans that would more directly benefit them.

Zoning is another underused but powerful tool that could be harnessed to prevent the elimination of crucial local businesses and facilities, argues John McGettrick, president of the Red Hook Civic Association. He proposes modifying the Zoning Resolution—the articles governing land development and use in the city—to regulate the types of commerce a new development can add or dispense with based on the needs of the surrounding area. By factoring in things like a neighborhood’s median income, new zoning laws could, say, prevent a new residential development from closing a laundromat, or at least commit the developers to replacing it. 

Not everybody sees a problem with Red Hook’s changing landscape. Henrietta Perkins has been living in and out of Red Hook since she was a girl in the 1950s. She’s seen the neighborhood’s fortunes fluctuate throughout the decades. Perkins lives in public housing near the Red Hook Houses, but has a washer and dryer at home. She acknowledges that there are now fewer local stores around for people to shop at, but she says that’s the way many suburbs work—the area immediately around you is residential and you have to travel to nearby neighborhoods to do your shopping.

Lina Vega argues this mentality is easier to adopt when you have the luxury of doing your laundry at home. Vega, who is still getting used to Hicks Mega Laundry, never really spent much time at 34 Laundromat to begin with, although she did her laundry there for 12 years. Typically, she would just throw her load into a machine and go run errands while she waited for a cycle to complete, yelling out a quick hi-and-bye to Mr. Chu, 34’s manager, on her way out. She doesn’t want to do that now that she’s a Hicks customer. Instead, she sits in one of the chairs near the entrance and waits for her load to be done.

“Just by being here I saw somebody’s laundry get taken,” she says. “It wasn’t on purpose, but yeah, she came back and her clothes was gone. So I don’t feel comfortable just leaving my stuff. Not just yet.”

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