The answer is "Yes!" if cousins Tosha Wilson and Jacqueline White have anything to do with it, and if they can raise start-up funds from the community to open The Laundry Cafe (TLC).
The business--a marriage between necessity (clean clothes) and community-building (comfortable chairs, coffee, poetry readings, and more)--would be a valuable addition to a ward that, Wilson points out, has no public school, no bank, and no grocery store, and to a city with just four laundromats.
The 5th ward, the historic center of Evanston's Black community, is largely a resource desert, it's quickly gentrifying, and Black residents whose families have lived here for three and four generations are being pushed out by rising property costs.
Wilson and White want to help reverse the 'Tide' (pun intended).
"When we grew up, we had options," says Wilson. "Businesses were everywhere, and now they're gone. It's like we're fighting to survive within something that we built. How can a community that speaks of inclusion, equity, and fairness not see this? People have to go to Main and Dodge, Noyes, Howard Street, or even Skokie to clean their clothes. Is there a reason for that?"
The two women, both of whom were born and raised on Florence Avenue in Evanston's Black community (Tosha's family goes back generations; her uncle is Bill Logan, Evanston's first Black police chief, and her cousin is the late activist, philanthropist, and businessman Hecky Powell), have been pursuing their vision for just more than a year, undeterred by setbacks: first, the bank refused to give them a loan; then the location they were eyeing on Darrow and Foster was snapped up by Meals on Wheels; and then, just as they were about to plan a Fresh and So Clean fundraising gala -- Covid-19 stopped them in their tracks.
"We felt that we needed to be innovative in raising money instead of 'just asking,'" says Wilson. "But then the world shut down on everyone. It took the wind out of us a bit, but we've definitely stayed busy."
The goal, though, is still to open TLC in 2021.
So why does Evanston need a laundromat in the 5th ward, and why should you help support it?
I asked Tosha.
DE: Tell me about your vision for The Laundry Cafe.
TW: We want The Laundry Cafe to be a place where necessity and community meet. There'd be comfortable chairs, cups of coffee, a slice of pie, and free Wi-Fi. If you don't have laundry, you can still stop by, say hello, and have a breakfast sandwich and a cup of tea. If you're like the two us, you'll drop your clothes off for the Wash-and-Dry service and walk out with a sandwich ... because you'll be picking your clothes up later. That's like washing clothes in four minutes: two minutes to drop off; and two minutes to pick them up. Chore done!
We envision our place to be spacious, clean, and comfortable. People spend about two hours at a time in a laundromat. Why does it have to be cold, dirty, and unattended? Jacqui and I are lucky to have laundry in our homes, but we remember the times when we had to sit in the laundromat being bored and cold, on uncomfortable plastic seats. And God forbid you come on a busy day and people are sitting on the folding tables just passing the time.
The concept has been very successful overseas, in Portland, Philadelphia, and in the New York area. We think Evanston deserves some comfort. There are people all over town that need to do laundry, so why not come to a special place like the 5th ward to get it done? Coffee, meeting spaces, homework rooms, poetry sessions, breakfast sandwiches, nice chairs, couches and above all else, love.
We plan to use a card-operating system that will make access to the machines easier--without physical money getting in the way, and we'll rent space to someone who'll provide great cafe services and a comfortable feel.
Our vision is big; money is always the barrier between a vision and making it actually come true. But we believe in creating an Evanston for everyone, and we have an investment plan designed to promote equity through economic development.
DE: How did you and Jacqui come up with this concept?
TW: I was bored and surfing the web one day, when I came across a picture of a laundromat in Copenhagen. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. There were lounge chairs, bean bags, and books on shelves like a small cozy library, but it was a laundromat. I was obsessed with the idea for about two years, and kept bringing it up to all my friends. I finally took the idea to Jacqui and she said, 'Why not?' I felt bad for dragging her into my obsession, but she agreed that it was a great idea and that we'd ride the wave together. My goal is to not kill her credit, but she said, 'I trust you,' as I would her.
DE: Why are you and Jacqui so committed to bringing this business to the 5th ward?
TW: It's really important for us that people know we aren't doing this because we want to get rich and feed off the people, because that is available elsewhere. We want this because we were raised to do better, and it's tough as hell out here.
We are two Black women, police officers (Tosha at the Evanston Police Department and Jacqui at the Highland Park Police Department), parents, mentors, coaches, caretakers of our elders, and pushed to our brinks every single day. In the end, we just want to do this for our community and for a small piece of our retirement.
The hardest lesson I ever learned as a teenager, when my parents were fighting their drug addictions and I refused most help was, 'You can't do it alone. You need others there for you.' I hated that advice! Jacqui and I have fought for so long by ourselves and had many silent tears. We should just want to keep to ourselves, but instead we push harder for ours. We decided to put our pride down and see where this goes.
So here we are.
Years ago, there was a smaller space on Simpson where people would take their laundry, but it couldn't accommodate everyone who needed it. Then there was a laundromat on Emerson (in the strip mall where the Babylon grocery store is located), that was perfect for the community. It had parking, and it was at the center of the neighborhood and really convenient.
DE: Do you have any locations in mind?
TW: Recently we found out that the property may be sold by the owners for another residential building. That made our hearts sink, because the historic heart of the Black community is gentrifying so fast. Thinking about it now makes me want to cry, but we keep pushing. Evanston's 5th ward is the ward that is sold by everyone as the ward that 'diversifies' Evanston -- but it's dying. The heart of the neighborhood is beating slower these days and we want to give the community its breath back. Many of our loved ones are still there, still strong, and they need resources. We want to help.
There are are few other possible spaces in the 5th ward, but there are a few that standout to us. First, Emerson and Hovland has been empty for years. We know that it's probably zoned for residential, but I've seen people with power and influence rezone whatever they want. Is it possible? We don't know, but it would be a perfect spot.
Another location is Simpson and Dodge where the old Snackery used to be. We understand the land is owned by others, but that's where negotiations and discussions would have to happen.
We also know that the building at 817 University sits empty. 817 University is not in the 5th ward, but it sits at the edge of it, and good things could happen there with the proper design.
DE: You started raising funds a year ago, then your plans stalled. What have you done in the meantime?
TW: We started doing small fundraisers and set up our GoFundMe last year. Then, just as we were about to go big ... Covid happened. But we've been working behind the scenes. We both just completed a 12-week course with Sunshine Enterprises and we're graduating on June 20. We wanted to broaden our knowledge and connections so we aren't just 'dreamers for the community.' We want to be doers.
We want our laundromat to help generate generational wealth--and not just in the next five years. We want to employ people from the neighborhood, make a profit, and generate and support new ideas and businesses in the neighborhood.
We pledge to pay it forward for all the love that has been and is continuing to be given to us.
We want to be my cousin Hecky and beat the odds. We want to be my Uncle Billy and beat the odds. We want more for our community because it's all we know and it's all we saw growing up. It would be so much easier to go and get a 'turn-key' business in the next neighborhood, collect passive income, and mind our own business, but that felt wrong in our hearts.
DE: You grew up in Evanston. How has it changed since you were a kid?
TW: Jacqui and I grew up in the 2nd Ward, but we spent a lot of time in the 5th Ward. Actually, this 'ward thing' is relatively new to us. Neither of us really speak the 'ward' language. We were just from 'The West End' growing up. We grew up across from Mason Park where we were inspired to be great and taught to be tough. We were shaped into leaders, listeners, and protectors. Many of your readers were there with us.
It was an awesome time to be a kid. We remember vividly real community, real businesses, and a sense of responsibility that our parents had about giving back. Jacqui's father is a well known football and basketball coach, my father (Lonnie Wilson) worked for years at Family Focus Evanston, and our homes were where all the neighborhood kids came to be themselves, and our mothers fed everyone in sight.
Mason Park was full of life, basketball, and barbecues. We were all responsible for one another. We knew our neighbors, they knew us, and it was love.
Today we don't see that level of community. The Laundry Cafe is one step toward bringing back what made us who we are.
DE: What do you think are the most pressing issues for people of color and for Black Evanstonians?
TW: I no longer live in Evanston, but Jacqui lives in the 5th Ward. I had to move before the market crashed because paying for my childhood home would have cost me close to half a million dollars. The thought was outrageous. I've been gone 12 years, but I'm still here every day.
Jacqui would not have been able to buy in the 5th ward without that market crash, and considers herself to have 'lucked up.' We're concerned that people of color are being priced out of the neighborhood. It's really sad to see. We know change is inevitable, but the diversity we sell to others to come to Evanston will be gone if we don't all fight for one another.
For people of color in general, there is this non-stop pressure to prove yourself. We are more educated, wealthier, and more accepted than our grandparents in society, but for some reason it feels like the mission to be great is harder to accomplish now. Our grandparents owned property, had a natural entrepreneurial spirit, and did things we could only imagine doing. Jacqui's grandmother had her own laundry business of sorts. She would receive clean clothes from white families from all over the north shore. She would iron them, put them in fresh plastic dry-cleaner bags, and then pack the family into the car and deliver them back to Wilmette, Kenilworth, Glencoe, Lincolnwood, and even Evanston.