Laundromats vanish as gentrification picks up

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Mark Underhill folded what is likely his last load of laundry at Lucy's Laundromat on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. After 17 years of operation, Lucy’s Laundromat will close on Sunday in what customers say is a telltale sign of gentrification.

It is the third laundromat to close on Underhill in five years of living in Los Angeles.

"It’s like, where do I go now?" said Underhill, an actor and bartender. 

The building’s owner Continental is redeveloping the block. The company did not return KPCC's request for comment. But owners of other businesses being displaced by the project — an antique tile shop and a discount store — say Continental is seeking more upscale tenants.

Echo Park, once known for dangerous gangs, is one of L.A.’s hottest real estate markets. The median home price in Echo Park broke $800,000 last year, according to real estate site Redfin.  

"It kind of shows that the people moving in don’t need laundromats," Underhill said. "People that have in-unit washer and dryer are richer people.”

That's in line with a recent study about the declining laundromat industry by IBIS World. Researchers found that coin-operated laundry businesses rely on lower-income customers, so demand lessens when there’s fewer of them around. 

Karen Tongson, a USC professor who has studied gentrification in Los Angeles, said as Echo Park becomes more attractive to developers and affluent professionals, there should be less need for laundromats.

"Chances are people are installing washer-dryers for newly renovated apartment buildings or newly-flipped single-family dwellings," Tongson said.

Tongson, who owns a home in Echo Park, said the neighborhood is increasingly popular because of its proximity to Silver Lake, downtown and freeways. She's noticed gentrification in the neighborhood accelerating, especially in the last year. 

"I'm constantly surprised by the number of new cafes in the neighborhood," Tongson said.

What is disappearing, she said, are discount stores, discount fashion palaces and furniture outlets. What they have in common is that they are independent businesses run by families.    

"The leases (in Echo Park) have increased so dramatically that these mom 'n pop shops can no longer afford to stick around," Tongson said. "The moment of vulnerability is when a developer swoops in and takes over an entire building or compound and decides to turn it into something else."

No word yet on what will go in the place of Lucy's Laundromat. Helen Kim, whose family has owned the business for 14 of its 17 years of existence on Sunset, said she is "very sad" because business has been good. Many are long-time customers who live in the area, but others are people who travel from other parts of the city because they don't have a laundromat nearby.

Right now, Jerry Aguirre and his family can push their laundry to Lucy's in a cart from their one-bedroom apartment about a mile away.

"It's cheap for us," Aguirre said. "We just walk here, but now we actually have to drive someplace."

Aguirre, whose family has lived in Echo Park for 14 years, blames Lucy's closing on gentrification. "There's a new flow of people, new races," he said.

But Aguirre said the neighborhood is safer than before, and that is "better" in the long run.

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