“Sometimes, you get beat for a machine…”

7:15 a.m. on a Wednesday morning on the Upper West Side, licensed manual therapist Peter C. Green stared with intensity at his darks as they swished around and around in sudsy water, clockwise and anti-clockwise, anti-clockwise and clockwise.

The surrounding washing machines buzzed monotonously as they no doubt shrank another unsuspecting newbie’s chunky wool-knit sweater. The smell of detergent — nearly more oppressive than the stifling heat — made nostrils burn and nasal hairs tickle in a way that fooled unfortunate nose-owners into thinking they needed to sneeze, only to realize after opening their mouths and revving up that no sneeze was forthcoming. Embarrassing.

“It’s one of those New York City rules that you gotta get up early in the city, and you have to compete for the simplest thing — the laundromat. It’s a reminder of where you are,” said Green.

He was ready to compete. Like Napoleon overseeing the Battle of Austerlitz from atop his noble steed Marengo, Green perched on his own observation post — a violently red and concerningly flimsy plastic stool — that he had placed strategically in the middle of the laundromat. It was right by the pony wall that divided the space in half, so that he had an excellent vantage point for both the washers on the right and the dryers on the left.

Green, who lives one floor above the laundromat and does his laundry every two to three days, is a veteran of the craft. He does not rely on the laundromat’s detergent — Aura Blue, which advertises itself as a medium-quality liquid detergent. A detergent with self-esteem issues is a hard sell. Green brings his own.

The former finance man — “it wasn’t easy giving up that Central Park view and the paycheck, but I got tired of looking behind my back to see who’s about to stab me” — applies a cut-throat mentality to his Calvin Kleins. “I try to get in early, or you spend your most precious resource — time — sitting around the laundromat,” he said. “This is New York. Everyone has shit to do, and the last thing you want to do is spend time at the laundromat.”

Getting up later, said Green, means “competing with the grandmas” — a battle that has no winners. “I don’t have time for that — who has three hours to give up? I’ll give up 90 minutes, but not three hours.”

Green dismissed the notion that other cities also have laundromats — “not like New York,” he said. Indeed — watching Green leap off his stool every few minutes to check on his clothes, leaving the rickety structure slightly shakier every time — it was hard to imagine this kind of laundry in Chugwater, Wyoming.

“Sometimes, you get beat for a machine,” he acknowledged. “I woke up at 6.15 a.m., and I was like, ‘Let me get ten more minutes.’ I woke up again at 6:55 a.m., and I got beat. Now, you’re spending more time, which affects your schedule and other things you need to do.”

He gestured at the packed machines — packed machines to the untrained eye, but a battle lost, a territory ceded for Green.

“I should have gotten up,” he lamented. “I should have gotten up, got my stuff, stood outside, beat everyone else. I got in here, and some lady took up four machines. I’m going to lose 20, 25, 30 minutes where I could be doing something else.”

Green, a New York resident since 1996, considers himself a certified New Yorker — a city where, he said, “everyone is in transit or came from somewhere else.” Mastering the laundromat, for Green, was mastering the city.

He jumped up again to transfer his belongings — “it’s all about the transition” — from washer to dryer. Some dryers are better than others, he explained, so there is a risk of wasting money on top of time if one is not vigilant. He loaded his darks into two dryers.

“The environment teaches you to be aggressive,” he called out from the distant corner. Then, he inserted the quarters and audibly booped as he pressed the buttons. “Boop, boop, boop — good. Done.”

“You get all the lessons at the laundromat,” said Green when he returned to his stool. “If you don’t learn them, you get beat. That’s what the laundromat reminds me of every time. That’s what the city is. You either make it or you break it — or get broken — and the laundromat reminds you of that.”

When Wah Lee opened Wash’ng and Iron’ng, the United States’ first hand-laundry, in San Francisco in 1851, it marked the arrival of the laundromat industry. More hand-wash laundromats were ushered in by Chinese immigrants who came for the Gold Rush but were instead shoved into the washer-dryer business by widespread anti-Chinese sentiment. In San Francisco, by 1880, around 95% of the laundromats were Chinese-owned and Chinese-run.

In April 1934, J.F. Cantrell of Fort Knox, Texas opened Washateria, the first self-service laundromat where people washed their own clothes. Customers paid by the hour to use the electric coin-operated machines. The low costs transformed laundry from a luxury into an accessible good, and by the 1950s, the industry had exploded. Intensive use meant the stores were increasingly battered — to remain competitive, investors spent on equipment maintenance, janitorial services, and additional services.

By the 1970s, the laundromat had become part of the fabric of American life, especially in cities, and social scientists started studying them as a cultural phenomenon. In 1982, urban anthropologist Regina Kenen visited several laundromats over the course of weeks in San Francisco and New Jersey in both “areas of the metropolis likely to depict the more alienating qualities of urban life” and neighborhoods “of ethnic and communal solidarity.” She found that behavior in a laundromat was shaped by its socioeconomic and cultural surroundings.

She noted that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area, people did not interact with each other at the laundromat. By contrast, in tight-knit and ethnically homogenous areas, like a working-class Latino neighborhood in San Francisco, the laundromat was a social space. Visitors chatted with each other, mostly in Spanish, while children ran around noisily.

“Social life exhibits an almost continuous flow between apartment, street, and neighborhood stores that are dotted through the area,” Kenen wrote of working-class communities. “This flow is seen in the interaction sequences occurring in the laundromat. In contrast, middle-class perception of space is selective, and middle-class observers find alien the degree to which residents of the urban village are at home in the street.”

More recently, sociologist Sophie Watson, also writing in Urban Studies, lamented that social science had ignored that “the unimaginably large amounts of laundry produced in cities, from the clothes and sheets of private homes, to the tableware, towels and bed linen of hotels, might have an impact on city life, public space and sociality.” She noted that “the processes associated with the management of the other major effluent of the body, arguably even more abject and potentially provocative of disgust — urine and shit — has been widely researched and explored” — a gross oversight, in her eyes.

In her study, Watson traced how laundry had gone from the home to the street with the emergence of laundromats, and then back to the home again as private households started owning machines. In New York, she noted, hordes of laundromats appeared because of high land values and apartment housing that had “restricted space, money or regulations limit the prevalence of domestic washing machines.” These revealed class, gender, and ethnic relations, and have changed over time to mirror the fluid nature of the society in which they operate. In the 2015 article, she wrote that laundromats in London were closing because people increasingly had in-unit washers, while in New York — where old buildings do not have the infrastructure or capacity to house in-unit or even in-building washers and dryers — laundry remained very much in the public realm.

She wasn’t wrong. According to IBIS World, the state of New York boasted the highest number of laundromats in 2023–4,178 businesses — while California came in second with a meagre 2,094. Over 19.6% of U.S. laundromats were in New York.

Across 4,178 businesses, customers sit around and watch their dirty clothes spin out under the merciless pressure of a high G-Force machine until they are desiccated. Sometimes, the clothes shrink, and sometimes they bleed.

Sometimes, the people do too.

In New York, many news stories detail gruesome crimes. In 2020, a customer attacked an employee in Brooklyn’s Hicks Mega Laundromat in Red Hook due to a broken machine. In 2021, a man stabbed another man during his wash cycle in the Lower East Side’s Delancey Laundromat. That year, a customer and an employee were stabbed in a Bronx laundromat. At Aqua Wash Laundromat on East 98th Street in Brownsville, a 69-year-old employee was attacked with a vase in 2021 — and a 70-year-old employee was attacked with a hammer in 2022. In March 2023, a man was killed with a machete in Long Island’s Valley Stream Laundromat.

But — in 2005, an artist named Risë Wilson was inspired by the laundromat, a space she referred to as an “incredibly democratic, de facto community space,” to create a place where underserved artists could share their ideas and their work; this became the Laundromat Project, which runs pop-up laundry events in primarily low-income communities. In 2015, the non-profit LaundryCares Foundation worked with the Too Small to Fail initiative to host free laundry and literacy events at local laundromats across the United States. In February 2023, Hydro-Quebec and 14th Street Laundromat in Astoria, Queens partnered with Public School 171 to give laundry coupons to low-income students who could not afford to wash their clothes regularly.

In 2016, Samuel Van De Cruze, owner of Queens laundromat Mr Bubbles, washed 5,000 pounds of free laundry for homeless families for over 60 hours. Much like Queens, said Van De Cruse, “we got people from all over the world.” Opening a laundromat, he said, was “an opportunity to help the community, help people — help people feel special. I was trying to build an atmosphere where people could feel welcomed and comfortable — them and their children. A place where people would want to come.”

On the Upper West Side and just two minutes down the road from 965 Laundromat on 107th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Billie Jean — “like the Michael Jackson song, only I ain’t seen none of the money” — carefully descended the ramp at the entrance of 932 Laundromat with her trusted walking cane. She was headed to Columbia Deli across the street while her load washed for a 40-minute cycle. The laundromat attendant asked her to bring back a tea.

Billie Jean had moved to the Upper West Side from Louisville, Kentucky for college over thirty years ago. “I’m from Mohammed Ali Kentucky. But I’ve been here for decades, so I think I qualify as a New Yorker now,” she said. “MJ” — Michael Jackson — “I’ve seen MJ so many times. Live at the Apollo. Aretha, Donna Summer, everyone. I’m a big fan, I’ve seen so many concerts in New York,” she said.

For Billie Jean, the laundromat could be a community — “if you ignore the ignorant comments.” As a mixed ethnicity Kentucky transplant, she’s heard the remarks. “I’ve been called half-breed before, but you just have to ignore them, because they got nothing better to do,” she said.

“Sometimes, some guys want trouble — they’ve had a night, and they like to hang around the laundromat after,” she explained. Usually, a well-timed stern look is enough to keep the peace. “You do have to speak up for yourself sometimes, if someone tries to take your cart or the machine, but that’s how life is, anyways,” she said.

But Billie Jean doesn’t see the laundromat as an unpleasant obligation.

“It’s my walk,” she said. Her affection for a long walk is not in spite of her limp — a car hit her decades ago during her college years, not all that far from here — but, in many ways, because of it.

“Every time I go to the laundromat, I just thank God I’m out and able to go to the laundromat,” she said. “Sometimes, I don’t even have anything to wash and I just go for the walk. You gotta get out there, walk to the laundromat, and then you’ll look like Madonna.”

Just a seven-minute walk away, down 104th Street and up Columbus Avenue, 922 Laundromat is sandwiched between Joe’s Deli and a Chirping Chicken. A group of elderly people sat outside on foldable camping chairs as they smoked away the minutes of their wash cycle.

Judith Medina, 69, had been coming to 922 Laundromat for 30 years. She does her laundry once a week — whites and colors together in cold water, which will prevent it from “messing up,” she claimed. She dries most of her clothes in the laundromat, except for jeans, which shrink in the dryer.

“They shrink. They’ll shrink, and then I waste $50 on my jeans,” she said. “You’re not going to shrink that. It’s not worth it. I wash-dry these, and then I take those home.”

Judith was born and raised in New York with a Latina background, but — “I speak Spanish as a defense,” she said. “If I don’t have to use it, I don’t use it.”

The machines, she said, have changed a lot. The people have changed even more. She suspected HI New York City Hostel, a big hostel on Amsterdam Avenue, as the root cause for an influx of foreigners — “a big place that international people come to,” she said. “It can be scary when you don’t know what they’re thinking. So, we just gotta see what they are going to do.”

What do they do? “Nothing,” she said. “They do nothing, so in the end, it’s always fine.”

“We have to get used to other people no matter what, because either way they’re there,” she said. “You know, we got to do what we have to do. So, we decided that Sunday or in the middle of the week or whatever, we still got to come to the laundromat.”

While Judith walked away to get more coins, a skittish mousy woman with greying hair — Susan — darted around the laundromat with growing panic in her eyes. She couldn’t find her laundry cart — a coveted luxury in New York’s crowded laundromats, filled with wonky carts both rusty and dusty. Someone had taken it.

“It’s funny, some people come from different projects, and they come here, and they wash clothes, too,” said Judith, a resident of the Frederick Douglas Houses on Amsterdam Avenue, upon returning. “It’s not only the people that live here.”

Judith was not one to let the crowds deter her.

“Don’t even think about it,” she said. “Just do it and get it over and done with. Because it’s better after. You’re going to win. Nobody else but you.”

In that sense, Judith was winning. So was Susan, who had remembered that she hid her own laundry cart in the corner to prevent any itchy fingers from making a grab for it. The biggest danger to Susan’s cart? Susan. She recovered it with relief.

Triumph, overall, at 922 Laundromat.

In a different borough and many laundromats away, in Williamsburg, Michelle’s whites and colors were doing rounds in Krystyna Laundromat.

She had driven her two large bags of laundry from her apartment just two blocks down the road. “Everyone’s anti-car now,” she said. “You get in a car, and suddenly you’re the bad guy. Well, I drove.”

Michelle had been coming to this laundromat her entire life — “I won’t say how many years” — and she had seen it all from behind a pair of round glasses that magnified her clear orbs — farsightedness, presumably.

She has never had to fight for a machine, but that stems from her own competence –”I’m a pro.”

As it does every Tuesday and Friday, the laundromat opened with Michelle’s arrival — she comes at 7:30 a.m. twice a week. “Now that I’m off work, I don’t want to disturb the people who do work,” she said. “I have the rest of the day to do all the errands.”

She started the routine when she retired from her NGO work with Neighbors Against Garbage in 2018. Another laundromat, Celsius Laundromat HQ on Berry Street — “the modern-day laundry,” as Michelle referred to it — is closer to her apartment. It boasts energy-efficient machines and a mezzanine coffee bar that sells kombucha and baked goods whose names sound like they were crafted during a poetry slam. Michelle only goes there occasionally, as a treat.

“It’s expensive and they open up at crazy hours,” said Michelle. “But I have to tell you, your clothes come out like they’ve been to the spa.”

Michelle noted that Krystyna Laundromat was a functional relic from the past — the beige Wascomat machines created a retro feel that surrounding faux-vintage Williamsburg establishments could only dream of as they acquired yet another antique vinyl record player.

But the area itself had transformed over Michelle’s lifetime.

“The whole place was a rat’s hole,” she recalled of the crisis-torn and rodent-ruled Williamsburg of the 1970s and 1980s. Now, the neighborhood is burdened instead by tote bag-bearing hipsters and young parents who push bemused toddlers in high-tech jogging strollers at the crack of dawn.

Michelle says the changes are for better and for worse, or perhaps they are for neither — places simply change, and laundromats like Celsius appear.

“I was thinking about doing all my blankets there anyway,” said Michelle. “It’s like I said, the clothes come out like they’ve been to the spa.”

In midtown’s New York Laundry, laundromat attendant Maria noted: “Hay muchas cosas extrañas.” There are many strange things.

In the six months that Maria had spent at the laundromat, she witnessed clueless clients cheerfully pour entire cans of detergent into the machines. She saw others struggle to wrestle a months’ accumulation of dirty clothes into what they believed was a snug fit, but what she knew was an overload. Alternatively, she watched someone wash and dry a single pair of socks.

Maria stuck her neck out for nobody. Why would she?

Former attendant Sandra explains it simply. She herself worked in the Upper West Side’s Wash Supply laundromat for three years, where she initially earned $9 an hour. This increased to $10 after a year.

“In cold weather, it was too cold, and in hot weather, there was no air conditioning,” said Sandra. “They didn’t give us toilet paper — we had to provide our own toilet paper, water.”

One day, two machines burst into flames.

“We didn’t know what to do,” said Sandra. “A co-worker opened the machine and the fire got bigger. The extinguishers weren’t at hand.”

One attendant started choking on the thick plumes. Sandra had a debilitating headache from the smoke and heat, but — “They wouldn’t let me go. They just gave me this Tylenol to reduce the pain. The pills didn’t work, but they told us we had to keep working.”

So, back in midtown’s New York Laundry, Maria sticks her neck out for nobody. Why would she?

As she wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand — dry already but not yet cracked after six months — Maria smiled derisively at the very thought of intervening in a disagreement between customers.

“Let them fight,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”

Anecdotes of closing laundromats started cropping up in the early 2010s. Data scientist Ben Wellington discovered using open data: New York neighborhoods with the highest median incomes had significantly fewer laundromats than lower median income neighborhoods. According to his data analysis, Elmhurst-Maspeth, Glendale, Jamaica, Estates-Holliswood, Woodside, and Corona Astoria had the most laundromats per resident, all in Queens. By comparison, affluent areas like Manhattan’s Tribeca and Battery Park City were laundromat deserts.

In part, the pressure comes from decreasing space in New York, which pushes up the rent. While offices go empty, ground floor retail spaces continue to become more expensive. According to commercial real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield, ground floor availabilities across Manhattan’s 16 premier corridors continued to fall in 2023, with an average decrease across the market of 1.5% over the last quarter. It was the 11th consecutive quarter with decreasing numbers for SoHo, Madison Avenue, Third Avenue, and the Upper West Side.

Meanwhile, average retail rent in Manhattan’s top shopping corridors shot up by 4.2% over the last year to add yet another consecutive quarterly increase. Commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE found that the average retail rent in Manhattan’s prime corridors was $638 per square foot in the first quarter of 2023 — which was a 3.7% increase from the previous quarter, an 8% increase from the previous year, and the third consecutive quarterly increase. On Fifth Avenue in Flatiron, average retail rent increased by 7.2% from the last quarter — 206 availabilities compared to 222. This was a 16.6% decrease from a year ago. While less drastic, the outer boroughs tell a similar tale — no space, high rates.

New York City’s water rates also continue to rise. In the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2022, the metered rate was $4.30 per 100 cubic feet — this increased by 4.42% to $4.49 for the 2023/2024 fiscal year. This is a shocking 25% increase in the rate compared to a decade ago, when it cost $3.58 per 100 cubic feet of water.

“Rent is typically the number one operating expense next to the cost of utilities, the water, sewer, gas, and electric,” explained Coin Laundry Association CEO Brian Wallace. “The ability to negotiate both long leases — you can’t pick up and move a laundromat, so the duration of the lease, that requirement, is typically much, much longer than other types of retail and service businesses — can be somewhat limiting depending on the landlords.”

Gentrification has also impacted laundromats, explained Wallace. “The primary demographic characteristic of the core laundromat customer is some combination of living in a rent-controlled household and being on the lower end of the household income scale,” he said. “These folks perhaps either can’t afford a washer-dryer of their own, or if there is laundry service in their building, it’s not adequate. As you get into newer builds of multi-family housing, they’re far more likely to not only have a better laundry room, but they’re also more likely to have an in-unit laundry. These are all putting pressures on New York laundromats.”

Demand for laundromats is expected to fall as developers construct new buildings with in-unit washers and dryers. In 2022, the National Association of Home Builders found in a nationwide survey that 83% of first-time homebuyers rated an in-building laundry room as their top priority (followed by a ceiling fan, exterior lighting, and a double kitchen sink).

But the change, said Wallace, isn’t as simple as a decreasing number of laundromats. The facilities themselves are transforming to meet modern-day demands.

“Let’s go back 20 years — you had more neighborhood laundromats where they didn’t have any off-street parking. There was a small laundromat on every corner,” he said. “I would contend that we’re doing as much laundry as ever — we’re just doing them in a fewer number of facilities, and those facilities tend to be more the modernized locations that are both larger in square footage as well as in aggregate wash capacity.

“I think laundromats of an older generation would be more utilitarian in their look, almost institutional. White walls, white floor, white ceiling, pack as much equipment in there as possible,” he said. “If you look at Celsius, the theme there is making it more comfortable. At the end of the day, making for a better wash day is really what people are trying to get accomplished.”

Even as the facilities transform, Wallace hopes that laundromats will continue to serve as a social space for New Yorkers. “It’s kind of one of those remaining few sort of community businesses where, you know, you go see your neighbors,” he said.

If the arrival of Chinese hand laundries represented the birth of the laundromat in the U.S., the 2020 closure of Sun’s Laundry in Manhattan’s East Village — one of New York’s last hand-wash Chinese laundries — signified a sort of new chapter with the rise of the self-service coin laundry. Now, the page might turn on the coin laundry.

Whatever comes next, Wallace contends: “The laundromat is still a mirror held up to the neighborhood. If you want to know what’s going on within those couple of blocks, go to the laundromat.”

It was 7:10 a.m. outside Amsterdam Avenue’s 965 Laundry. The laundromat should have been open, but the shutters were still down. In 28-degree weather, the ten-minute delay was less than convenient.

Green was not there.

Instead, an elderly man shifted from one foot to the other as he waited for the attendant to open the laundromat.

“She’s late,” he turned to me. “She took the M104. She should have taken the M116. You know it’s free, right?”

Rigoberto Concepcion, born in 1944, has been doing laundry on the Upper West Side since 1958. He knows the area and its laundromats like the back of his hand. “There’s this laundromat, then one on 107th, and one on 106th,” he listed. “There used to be a big one on the corner of 110th, owned by a big Jewish guy.”

What happened? “He died.”

Concepcion was born in Puerto Rico, but he moved with his mother and six siblings — three girls, three boys — to Spanish Harlem as a child. Apart from one sister, his siblings all moved to Miami since then. “Better weather, less violence,” said Concepcion. “They shot everyone here.”

The laundromat attendant finally arrived to open the door, and Concepcion rolled his cart of clothes to the back to load a machine. He briefly lost his hat in the load, but he noticed just in time to fish it out from the pile — a near-incident that could have led to an unpleasant hatless existence in the crisp winter day.

Concepcion used to bring his mother’s clothes to the laundromat, but she died in 2022. “She was the same age as what’s-her-name, the one who died. The wife.” The wife? “The wife. Of the President.” Carter? “Carter. 96 years old. My mother was 97.” He does miss her when he does the laundry — “but she was pretty old, though.”

He was drafted in 1965, when he went to Checkpoint Charlie. From Berlin, he went to Japan for training, and then Vietnam. He returned to the United States in 1968 after he was injured in combat.

“Came out quick. M16 rifles weren’t no good,” he recalled. “Came back to New York. First thing I bought me was a Mustang. I crashed it.”

Between crashing his Mustang in 1969 and stuffing his laundry into a machine today, he saw it all. “You don’t wanna know what I saw,” he said. “Drugs and guns. In 1992, riots not far from here, in Washington Heights.”

Concepcion referred to everyone by their ethnicity; on the rare occasion that he didn’t, he distinguished them by perceived sexual orientation. The area, he said, has changed a lot. The demographics have changed — it used to be a Dominican area, he said — and life has gotten more expensive. He still pays $315.10 for his rent-controlled apartment on 109th and Amsterdam Avenue, but his cable costs upwards of $200. His phone plan cost him $25 a month before he broke his phone deliberately. He did not want to pay the $25. But he doesn’t want to complain too much, he said — “I get $4,000 a month because I was an electrician — 32B.”

Does he do laundry often?

“I go to Costco,” he responded. Then, he pulled out his wallet to show off his Costco card. He also flashed an IDNYC card — “De Blasio gave me this” — and a Health First OTC card.

“You gotta be careful,” he warned as he tucked the cards back into his weathered black leather wallet. “You take the train? All those nuts out there — you gotta be careful. You take the L-train? Change at 14th? I went there for an operation for cataracts. I take the M7 to 14th. It’s free.”

Does he do laundry often?

“Do you remember disco?” he asked back. “And the one who was married to the skinny one.” Married? “Twiggy guy. He was married to the skinny woman.” John Lennon? “Bono.” Sonny? “Sonny. He was married to Cher. He died in a ski accident.”

Is he worried about skiing?

“Why would I be worried about skiing?” he asked. “It’s just that it’ll be difficult to bring the clothes in the winter if the roads are icy. It’ll be like skiing everywhere with the laundry. You’re here to talk about laundry, aren’t you?”

Concepcion got up to make sure the washer wasn’t overheating. He needed the spin to hurry up — he had a new home-tender who comes at 8:00 a.m every day. She cooks waffles for breakfast, but he still needed to dry his clothes and it was already 7:30 a.m.

Concepcion, it was finally revealed, comes to the laundromat once a week — usually on Saturdays, but sometimes on Wednesdays. Over the years, he witnessed many idiosyncrasies at 965 Laundry. “There’s one crazy guy,” he said. “Crazy guy, runs in here and puts the coins into the good machines so no one else can have them. He lives around here, next door. A bald-headed crazy guy. Small.”

Concepcion transferred his clothes into a dryer. He had 15 minutes to do a 15-minute load — perfectly timed. He came back to continue: “He’s a Scrooge. He puts his bags in there. People complain about him — you’re not supposed to do that in a laundromat.

“You know him, right? You interviewed him a few weeks ago.”