Unpleasant design: a tale of two laundromats


The laundromat closest to my house was, at one time, a gas station. It stayed vacant for a while before some local bigwigs bought it, refurbished it, and turned it into a Mexican takeout restaurant.

The fact that it’s now a laundromat should tell you how well the restaurant did.

After another round of renovation, there was a new neighborhood laudnromat, and it was almost completely automated. Someone had to cruise by once or twice a day, sweep the floor, and empty out the quarters, and there was a phone number customers could call, but that was it for human intervention. The lights dimmed shortly before closing time, and the automatic door stopped opening from the outside and wouldn’t reopen until morning.

The result was nothing special, but it got the job done, and it was within walking distance.

Little by little, though, changes for the worse crept in. There were customer complaints about the washers skimping on water. The price crept up a bit. The wifi degraded badly, for no discernible reason. The outside picnic table, a leftover from the laundromat, disappeared. Then the bathroom was locked, and it has stayed locked ever since.

The water can be put down to owners who want to keep their utility bills low – and if it was happening, it wasn’t enough for me to notice – but the rest of it seems calibrated to keep away the wrong sort of people. The sort of people who have no home internet, or home internet that’s slow enough to make public wifi attractive. The sort of people who might be tempted to linger in a laundromat after they’re done using it because they have nowhere better to go. The sort who might be tempted to use a picnic table or public bathroom without spending money.

You know, poor people.

Some of their customers appreciate this sort of thing. I know this because one of them called the attendant hotline to roust me one day, because I had the gall to stay after my laundry was done and finish watching the YouTube video I had started. (The attendant grudgingly admitted that I might possibly be a customer, or I might have had the cops called on me as well.)

 

The laundromat that’s next closest to my house isn’t within walking distance, and its hours are shorter. Its owners are also somewhat wary of their customers – this is the business I’ve mentioned before that hands out a key for its bathroom, and it changes its wifi password once or twice a month to make it harder to log in from the sidewalk.

There is a key for the bathroom, though, and the wifi is respectably fast. The machines are a bit cheaper, and I’ve heard no complaints from anyone about water pressure.

That’s because that laundromat also offers dry cleaning and tanning, so someone has to be on the premises. There’s no way it could operate without an on-site attendant, and that attendant is able to identify and respond to customers who disrupt business.

…whereas the other laundromat is designed to subtly designed to repel classes of customer who its owners suspect are slightly more likely to disrupt business. It’s objectively worse, to the point that I avoid it unless (the two businesses’ hours being that different) my work schedule doesn’t allow me to use the tolerable one.

It saves the cost of keeping one low-wage worker at a time on site, though, so its owners probably think they’re doing well.

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