The West Side's WASH Project
Images courtesy of TheWashProject.org
Walk past the Westside Value Laundromat on a nice day and the first thing you’ll notice is at least a half dozen children playing on the surrounding sidewalk like it’s the coolest play spot in town. The second thing you’ll notice is the building’s exceptionally cheery façade, decked out in sunny colors and huge wheat-paste portraits of whom you may presume (correctly) are laundromat regulars. It’s quite possible that you will even hear the curious sounds of live experimental music coming from within. By this point it should already be clear that this is no ordinary "wash & fold" establishment.
In fact, laundry is only one small part of what goes on at the Westside Value Laundromat, better known as the WASH (Westside Art Strategy Happenings) Project. WASH is also a place for those of all ages to use the computer, play pool, attend one of many organized events, take English classes, and explore their creative side—all within a loving and safe community space.
The idea draws its greatest inspiration from the Laundromat Project, a non-profit that organizes events at various laundromats across NYC, aiming “to raise the quality of life in New York City for people whose incomes do not guarantee broad access to mainstream arts and cultural facilities” with the belief that creativity is essential to wellbeing. Likewise, the WASH Project’s mission is to provide access to the arts and various types of literacy to everyone, particularly those with limited means.
Zaw Win, owner of the laundromat, is a prominent Burmese activist and former political prisoner (pictured far right). Both the location and Win’s reputation among the Burmese community has made WASH a gathering place for Buffalo’s growing population of Burmese immigrants and refugees, which settles primarily on the West Side. Although Win owns the business, it’s Barrett Gordon (pictured right) who coordinates events and manages WASH on a day-to-day basis. Gordon, whose background is in librarianship, has a particular interest in information and visual literacy, while Win specializes in financial literacy and can help translate between English and Burmese.
The laundromat’s interior is just as colorful as its exterior. At the entrance is a table with art supplies and a library of donated books—ranging from children’s works to a few Burmese texts. Covering one wall is a selection of news clippings about political activism in Burma as well as a series of photographs featuring Zaw Win shaking Mayor Byron Brown’s hand, on the cover of Artvoice, etc. On the opposite wall hangs an installation by the current artist-in-residence, while children’s artwork can be found in nearly every nook and cranny. The wheat-paste murals on the outside of the building are the work of previous artist-in-residence Max Collins.
The pool table is the laundromat’s most popular feature. While a few play (for $1 a pop), a group of others look on. Gordon describes the table as a “stirrer of things;” it’s what initially attracts many to WASH, though clearly what keeps them there is the atmosphere. Huge, worn maps of South Asia adorn the walls adjacent to the pool table. These, Gordon says, are a source of comfort; a way for those gathered around the table to point out the place they call home.
In the back of the laundromat is the computer workstation, which is free to use, though a time limit of 45 minutes per session is loosely enforced. “As a librarian, I believe computers are an important access point for information and [the improvement of] literacy,” Gordon says, though he jokes that the kids mostly use the computers to play games.
“Juxtaposition” is a word Gordon uses multiple times while describing WASH—it’s characterized by its “juxtaposition of high-brow and low-brow art,” and the strange “juxtaposition of operating a not-for-profit out of a for-profit business.” But the combination of arts and community is certainly no unusual one, and WASH’s model proves that some of the greatest inspiration often comes not from a fancy gallery or expensive art class but from a relaxed and supportive environment.
WASH is engaged with the all elements of the Buffalo community, receiving support from Buffalo AmeriCorps, Houghton College, and the Rupp Foundation, as well as various individuals, especially Mark Goldman, Chuck Massey, and Council Member David Rivera. Most events hosted by WASH are the result of partnerships with a range of regional organizations, such as Squeaky Wheel (Tech Arts for Girls workshops) and GOBike Buffalo (free bike maintenance). The WASH Project’s t-shirts were screened by WNYBAC, and its computers were donated by Computers for Children and the John R. Oishei Foundation. Through an agreement with Urban Roots, it’s responsible for the maintenance of 3 plant beds in the community garden down the street. WASH would only be a shadow of itself without its ties to these organizations; it is built upon strong relationships on both an individual and professional level.
As WASH has become more of an arts haven, however, it’s unfortunately become less of a laundromat—about half of the washers and dryers have stopped working and fewer and fewer people come in to wash their clothes. Gordon worries aloud about the future of the laundromat, but he does so with a smile, inviting the challenge. In the upcoming year, he says, “we’re looking to create an independent, sustainable model of our own.” He explores the idea of operating out of satellite laundromats across the city or doing fundraising. It’s easy to see how much he cares about the place and the people that come there from the warm hello he gives to every person, friend or stranger, who walks by.
Barrett Gordon, experimental thinker and the definition of a neighbor, alongside Zaw Win, tireless advocate for equality and political change, represent everything WASH stands for. And WASH, in turn, is the perfect representation of what people love most about Buffalo: its ability to foster creativity in the most unlikely of places.
Check out the WASH Project’s schedule of events here. or even better, drop by for a visit at 417 Massachusetts Ave; Buffalo; Hours: M–F, 11am - 5pm.
Anna Wood is a graduate of City Honors and a former Buffalo Spree intern.