Loads of Wash (Tons of It) And a Community Haven

By JODI WILGOREN; Gretchen Ruethling contributed reporting from Chicago for this article.

The birds arrived Wednesday, 15 feathered members of the finch family fluttering around a wood-and-glass sanctuary. Thursday brought the sand table and magnet games for the children’s play area, where a special laminate floor was being laid.

And when the doors of the World’s Largest Laundromat reopen this week, dozens of free doughnuts will be doled out daily, as reliable as the rinse cycle in the spanking-new washing machines.

Oh, yes, the machines. There are 301 of them now, row upon gleaming silver row, including a dozen washers ready to whirl a whopping 75 pounds (for a whopping $6.50) and the Chicago area’s first high-powered express models that more than double the G-force in the spin cycle to cut dryer time nearly in half.

But before a four-alarm fire in August 2004 destroyed the World’s Largest Laundromat, it was not just a place to pump quarters into metal boxes and pick strangers’ lint from filters in this working-class strip just west of Chicago.

It was a haven for Hispanic families who cannot afford cable to watch Spanish-language soap operas. It was a Saturday-afternoon carnival with magicians, jugglers, face painters, even a unicyclist. There was Santa Claus posing for pictures at Christmas, the Easter Bunny handing out chocolate in April, cartoon characters on Halloween and, in summer, a read-athon raffle with bicycles for prizes.

Rebuilt for $3 million ($2 million from insurance) even better than before, the Laundromat will still offer free pizza on Wednesday nights and will also have free wireless Internet access 24 hours a day.

“It’s like the beacon of the community,” said Ozzie Cruz, 46, who works at a local radio station and is the president of the Berwyn Hispanic Organization. “It’s more than just doing your clothes; it’s an experience. The first day he’s open, people may not even have laundry, but they’ll stop by.”

While Mr. Cruz praises the Laundromat’s owner, Tom Benson, for understanding the neighborhood’s needs—“not only their laundry needs,” Mr. Cruz said, “just basic human needs”—Mr. Benson says he is simply striving for customers, and their quarters.

“The truth is it’s all about business,” Mr. Benson said in an interview as he oversaw carpet installation and basket assembly. “My morning business is better because of the free coffee and doughnuts. I’m a businessman; I’m here to make money.”

Mr. Benson, 60, who lives in nearby Oak Park and bought the place in 1999, did not set out to be a Laundromateur. He was a business broker, selling mom-and-pop operations, unable to interest anyone in the 13,500-square-foot behemoth, its awning ripped and windows cracked. “I kept looking at it trying to find the right arguments to convince a buyer, and I convinced myself,” he said with a laugh.

Hardly a Laundromat connoisseur—his only experience was after a divorce, in the early 1980’s, when he would skulk into the dingy place across the street at 10 p.m., dump his clothes and run home to watch the news—Mr. Benson stole ideas from other successful businesses. The birds he had seen delighting residents in a nursing home. The pizza was a ploy to perk up the midweek lull in laundry customers.

He noticed bored children waiting while parents juggled loads, so he commissioned a coloring book telling the story of a Hispanic family on a Laundromat outing. He personally went to pick up and deliver fluff and fold to older shut-ins. That was him, too, in the Santa suit, handing out stuffed animals and toys and 1,000 calendars customized with pictures of each child on his lap.

“I want to make a good living while having a lot of fun,” he said. “You can be pretty creative because you’ve got people for an hour, hour and a half.” Indeed, many Laundromats have diversified to turn the dirge like chore into a day out. Brainwash Caf?n San Francisco couples coin-operated machines with live music and comedy nights. Wash and Learn has aspiring teachers from Brooklyn College teaching youngsters to read between loads at three neighborhood outlets. The motto at Laundry Bar in Miami, with nightly disc jockeys and weekly drag shows, is “get sloshed while you wash.”

Brian Wallace, president of the national Coin Laundry Association, said storefronts near college campuses often offered Internet access while those in immigrant enclaves might sell international phone cards. The standard televisions and video games are increasingly accompanied by tanning booths. Many Laundromats now also sell lottery tickets, rent videos or provide photo-printing services.

“You need to open up with some new twist that is going to want to make all those customers come to you,” said Arthur Lapon, president of ADL Consulting Services, which specializes in the coin laundry industry.

Here in Berwyn, a suburb of about 55,000 that is nearly half Hispanic, there has been a laundry on this prime patch of Cermak Avenue since at least the 1950’s, expanding bit by bit to the current sprawling space.

It dwarfs the average Laundromat, which has 50 to 55 machines in maybe 2,400 square feet, according to Mr. Wallace, but most likely does not live up to its lofty title. Mr. Benson knows of a place in Denver with 400 machines, but he is quick to point out that it is only two-thirds the physical size. “They jammed them all in,” he said. “There’s no place to relax, no place to run around, no place to be human.”

The fire, started by an errant spark behind a dryer, left customers and children crying on the corner, but allowed Mr. Benson to dream.

The new place has more bathrooms, with Italian floor tiles, and will have a Mediterranean-themed mural on the back wall. The solar panels on the roof are even stronger than their predecessors, and should cut gas bills by 25 percent.

There will be diner-style booths by the vending machines—not just candy and chips but White Castle hamburgers and other microwaveable meals—and the play area, all under a circular dropped ceiling adorned with neon signs blaring “Welcome” in 20 languages. And it will still be open 24 hours, every day of the year.

“It’s a community center,” said Joel Rhea, assistant principal of nearby Havlicek Elementary school, who said he kept going to the Laundromat—often with his wife and two children—for pizza and play even after buying a house with a washer and dryer. “It’s family-oriented. There’s stuff to do. Even though it’s a Laundromat, it’s not just a Laundromat.”

Photos: The laundry offers free doughnuts and pizza. Even birds call it home.; New flooring, hundreds of gleaming new machines and more at a laundry in Berwyn, Ill. The owner, Tom Benson, below, says, “The truth is it’s all about business.” But a community leader calls it “an experience.” (Photographs by Peter Thompson for The New York Times)

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