On a chilly day in October, two folding tables were lined with brightly-colored jugs of laundry detergent in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood, one at the splash park behind the community center at Woodhill Homes and one at the corner of Baldwin and Mt. Carmel Roads. Staffed by volunteers from the Woodhill Community Co-op, the group gave out nearly 200 containers of detergent to members of the community. Adjacent tables had representatives from the Census making sure residents were counted and folks from Freedom Bloc registering voters.
As they handed out detergent during their first Community Care Pop-Up, the co-op members, composed of residents of the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood, Woodhill Homes and adjacent neighborhoods, asked the recipients about laundry: How much did they spend and where did they do it?
“We found there’s a good proportion of people that are actually doing laundry in a tub or a sink at home because they don’t have access to the laundry,” says Morgan Bulger, one of the co-op’s founders and a resident of the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood. “There’s a lot of compounding barriers to access laundry. Cost being one, transportation being another.”
After the success of the first Community Care Pop-up, a second one followed in November where the co-op members distributed care packages of masks and cleaning products donated by Neighborhood Connections. Food Not Bombs was on site to hand out turkeys and fresh produce. The next pop-up will be on April 11, and in the meantime the group has been crowdfunding for supplies and donations online, where it surpassed its initial goal. “It was really awesome to see the encouragement and the financial support from strangers and people in our lives that just want to see this happen,” says Bulger.
With so many people out of work due to COVID-19, the results of that October survey weren’t much of a surprise. The co-op members were familiar with the accessibility problems. Formed in December of 2019, the co-op has a long-term goal to open a community-owned, full-service laundromat to offer better accessibility to residents in the neighborhood, as well as an opportunity for upward mobility and building financial stability.
“The co-op operates by a set of cooperative principles, including care for the community, and one person one vote, meaning everyone has equal access to decision making,” says Bulger. “A co-op is a wealth-building opportunity, a power and decision-making opportunity, and also an opportunity for us to practice and build democracy.”
Another reason this wasn’t surprising is because it was a previous survey conducted by Case Western Reserve University that kicked off the entire thing. In 2019, a survey of over 320 Woodhill Homes residents that Bulger, then a post-doctorate at Case, led as part of a Choice Neighborhoods Planning initiative which is working towards a $35 million revamp of Woodhill Homes. The survey revealed that laundry services were cited as the resource residents had the least access to at the public housing complex, home to nearly 1,000 residents.
The development didn’t have its own laundry and residents had to push carts loaded with their clothes through the snow to get to the nearest public one. An on-site laundromat was in the works (it still hasn’t been built), but its planned four washers and dryers and limited hours of availability could hardly meet the demand of so many people anyway.
The survey also revealed that there was a great deal of interest in entrepreneurship and learning how to start a business. Bulger started talking to residents informally about a solution to both.
“Learning about co-ops, it seemed like it could be a way to start a business. Any of us on our own would not be able to just start a laundromat,” she says. “But this group working together with other partners and other residents and everyone chipping in a little bit, we could create something that would address both of these needs, and also build something really cool.”
Folks from Buckeye-Woodhill and its surrounding communities joined Bulger to form the remaining founding members of the co-op. While still in its early stages, the group is currently focusing on building community, raising funds, working on a business plan, and figuring out what the laundry co-op will eventually look like.
The goal is to have a cooperatively-owned laundromat that can also serve as a community meeting place, whether that involves the co-op buying land to build on or leasing space from one of the new buildings being constructed in the neighborhood. Having some sort of transportation to the site is on the wish list too, although the hope is to have it within easy walking distance of Woodhill Homes.
A lack of access to clean laundry is an issue for obvious reasons, the unknowns about COVID-19 transmission on fabric not the least of them. But it can also be the deciding factor for lower-income folks about attending a job interview, going to work or to school.
Ashley Evans, another Woodhill Community Co-op founder and a former teacher, has seen these issues firsthand. Teaching in adjacent northeast Ohio communities, she’s witnessed students stop attending school due to the embarrassment about not being able to afford to do laundry frequently enough.
“It’s actually a bigger issue from a national point of view too and there are a lot of educators who are trying to tackle that issue,” she says. “When children don’t have access to clean clothes, that does have very negative consequences on their educational attainment.”
It’s not just children affected by a lack of laundry access though, and the hope is that through the co-op, future members will also develop a sense of pride of ownership in the venture and as an extension, the community, according to Cheryl Stewart, another of the co-op’s co-founders.
When Stewart was growing up, she experienced the financial and geographic barriers to laundry herself. Now a homeowner in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood, she got involved with the co-op to help out her neighbors.
“I was appalled that we are still dealing with this issue that I dealt with 30-40 years ago,” she says. “This is a way to give folks a sense of ownership, self esteem and respect, and also open up something that’s uniquely theirs.”
While some in the community have been skeptical after seeing promises of investment in the area made and broken, the co-op members are committed to seeing it through, working with Legal Aid to firm up their business plan and put by-laws in place. The hope is that by the end of the summer they’ll be officially incorporated as a cooperative so folks can become official members.
They’re also calling and meeting up with over 60 community members who provided their contact info during one of the pop-ups to discuss the co-op over coffee. The goal is to engage neighbors, build community, and hopefully move folks from interest to buy-in and ownership on the plans.
“This is an opportunity to give people some better access to determine what their lives look like,” says Evans. “And so not only does it help with access in terms of financial determination, and building wealth in the community, but also empowerment.”
Ilona Westfall is a freelance writer based in Lakewood.