Everyone else comes to do laundry.
That's how the tide turns at the WASH Project, a recent nonprofit initiative that transformed the Westside Value Laundromat at 417 Massachusetts Ave. into a budding arts center for West Side residents.
The laundromat continues its primary purpose, and some customers still drift in, oblivious to the new goings-on, to just toss some clothes in the machines and leave. But for many people in this melting-pot neighborhood, the WASH Project (Westside Art Strategy Happenings) provides the only free and easy access to arts, computers and community education – plus the chance to get some clean clothes in the process. Call it a sign of the times for the city: As arts programs are disappearing from some regional schools, this one is thriving in the corner laundromat of one of Buffalo's most-impoverished neighborhoods.
“In the beginning, people thought it was weird,” said Barrett Gordon, the WASH Project's coordinator, who prefers considering himself the “facilitator of unstructured play.”
“But they took to it quickly. It's a no-brainer – when you're sitting around waiting for your clothes to dry, might as well do something greater,” he said.
Gordon, an Allentown native who returned to Buffalo last year after working in Chicago's arts community, coordinates the WASH Project as an AmeriCorps service member. But the project also wouldn't be possible without the Westside Value Laundromat's owner, Zaw Win, who was a pillar in the West Side community long before his business was reinvented.
Win is a Burmese refugee who spent four years as a political prisoner in his country and lived for years as an undocumented worker in Thailand before being resettled here in 2005. He quickly became the go-to guy for Buffalo's Burmese refugees, translating texts and mediating conversations for those still struggling with English. When he took over the block's long-standing laundromat in 2010, he immediately intended greater things than washing and drying.
From the beginning, the laundromat “was not only for profit but for the whole community,” said Win, a small and soft-spoken man who is quick to hug strangers and says that helping people is his “hobby.”
One corner was filled with a pool table, and that helped the laundromat evolve into a haven for the West Side's burgeoning immigrant and refugee population. Win put world maps on a wall beside the pool table, so visitors could tell their travel stories visually while playing a few games with neighbors.
The laundromat caught the attention of Mark Goldman, the local historian and urban entrepreneur, and Chuck Massey, coordinator for the Office of Urban Connections at Houghton College. The two were inspired by the Laundromat Project – an ongoing arts-meets-laundry movement in New York City – and wanted to spin the idea for Buffalo. They knew exactly where to start.
“We knew that it was a de facto community center already,” Massey said. “We thought that if we could find a few more resources, we could expand the work that it's already doing for the community.”
Goldman, who was instrumental in the revivals of areas like Chippewa Street and Black Rock, recognized a perfect opportunity to help another struggling neighborhood.
“It wasn't the result of a think tank or seminar,” Goldman said. “It's spontaneous, it's cheap, it has an immediate impact, creates a destination, improves lives, improves the streets. It's a home run. It's a home run masqueraded as a single.”
With the help of Goldman, Houghton College, the Belle Center and the Richard W. Rupp Foundation, the WASH Project popped up in November, starting modestly with a white corner table for drawing and painting. Since then, the laundromat has been furnished with a small arts studio, three computers and a little library of books donated by the Central Library. Earlier this month, local photographer Max Collins installed black-and-white murals of West Side children on the building's exterior – the most obvious sign, so far, that this is no longer a typical laundromat.
Gordon said that the laundromat is in “a semi-constant state of recovery,” and it shows – the new facilities haven't rinsed the chipped paint and damaged walls. That dilapidated charm, however, is part of the WASH Project's mission.
“We wanted to be freed from the purely utilitarian part of just running a laundromat,” Gordon said.
To honor that free-for-all spirit, the WASH Project appeals to a defiantly random assortment of interests and ideals. The walls, plastered with “Free Burma” posters and pictures of Win with Burmese protesters, now also showcase cheerful drawings by Grover Cleveland High School students, and a rotating selection of works by local artists. ESL tutors routinely teach here, Squeaky Wheel and PUSH Buffalo held special events and ambient musicians bring the noise for a monthly series of experimental concerts. A dry erase board at the front of the laundromat announces the odd mix of events hosted by the WASH Project any given week: “Urban Roots Gardening Posse,” “Community Acupuncture,” “Burmese Unity Soccer Tournament.”
The WASH Project is similarly lax about its rules and regulations, promoting simple values of nonviolence and respect instead of formal policies.
The library – featuring children's books, reference books and rare Burmese texts – runs on a give-and-take honors system. There is a 45-minute limit on the computers, but when visitors are using them for job searches or reading news about their native countries, that limit is loose.
It's an ad hoc community center in a community that is still strapped for resources. Win, with his refugee activism, and Gordon, with his interest in experimental art (or “people art,” as he calls it), are united by an affinity for outsiders and outcasts. So both of them want to leave the WASH Project open to anyone, or anything, that might cycle through.
“This is an outlet for random acts of creation,” Gordon said. “The urge to create is a human instinct. And we've been seeing that as a successful common denominator so far.”