Last week, Brainwash Cafe shut down after 28 years in business. In the days since, it has been fondly remembered as an affordable eatery, a community gathering place, and a talent incubator for dozens of local musicians and stand-ups, who got their start onstage at its numerous weekly open mics.
But for me and many other SoMa residents, it was also the place we did our laundry. And now that it’s gone, there’s nowhere else to wash our clothes.
I live in one of the many six-unit apartment buildings that line the alleys of western and central SoMa, most of them constructed in the two decades after the 1906 earthquake. (Mine was built in 1916.) Dating to an era before convenient at-home laundry, these buildings don’t have the space, electricity hookups or ventilation to support a washer or dryer, even a communal one. So, every two weeks, I load up a granny cart and push it a 15-minute walk over to Brainwash.
Brainwash had crowds. I’d actively try to avoid doing my laundry on Saturdays and Sundays, when the laundry room would be packed from noon to night, every washer and dryer full. Even on weekday afternoons, it was usually at least half-full with a kaleidoscope of SoMa residents: young Latino families fluffing comforters, elderly Filipina women sorting out whites, electronic musicians compiling beats on their laptops with one eye on their spinning clothes. There was always at least one customer who was clearly living on the streets, guarding a loaded cart of possessions outside as they waited for their blankets to dry.
The only faces I didn’t see in Brainwash’s laundry room are otherwise common in SoMa: well-scrubbed, bobbing above expensive performance fleece and technical backpacks. That’s probably because in-unit laundry is considered an essential amenity for the residents of SoMa’s dozens of gleaming new condo buildings.
A year ago, Hoodline (my employer, full disclosure) reported that Brainwash’s owner, Jeff Zalles, had seen a 20 percent drop in revenue after construction began on 99 Rausch, a six-story, 112-unit condo building going up next door. After multiple news reports of Zalles’ plight, the developer stanched the bleeding by buying some Brainwash gift credits to distribute to local businesses. But the damage was already done.
Brainwash remained open throughout construction, but I can testify firsthand to the chaos it caused for the cafe portion of the business. Scaffolding blocked all of its signage; a rickety makeshift sidewalk detour in front was tough enough to navigate with a granny cart full of laundry, much less a wheelchair or other mobility device.
The big sidewalk patio and parklet, a popular hangout, became a ghost town. The work-from-home crowd dissipated, as jackhammer noise made it impossible to focus on a laptop. Only the laundry crowds were rock-solid, because we had nowhere else to go.
I make just below the San Francisco median income, which means I can’t afford to buy a home (single-family or condo) in SoMa, where the median sold price in the last 30 days is $1.09 million. I also can’t afford to purchase my own car to drive my laundry elsewhere. But I still have it easier than a lot of other longtime SoMa residents, who won’t be able to afford the switch to a wash-and-fold service like Laundry Locker or an app like Rinse.
The effect can be seen on laundromats all over the city, which are shutting down at a rapid rate. Hoodline conducted preliminary research into the number of laundromats in San Francisco, and found that as of 2016, just 85 remain. That’s down from 205 in 1996.
One surprising culprit—restaurants. Most laundromats are already equipped with the pricey ventilation, gas, electricity, and plumbing utilities needed to become eateries; and many landlords are choosing to make the switch to acquire these higher-paying tenants. In the past year alone, Korean restaurant Barnzu took over a former laundromat in the Tenderloin; coffee shop Wooden Cafe replaced Cole Valley’s longtime Doug’s Suds; and despite community pushback, Market Street’s Little Hollywood Laundrette will close to become a Scandinavian restaurant, Kantine.
Brainwash’s home base, the commercial stretch of Folsom between Seventh and Eighth streets, has been particularly hard-hit, with massive retail turnover in the past year. In 2018, City Beer Store, my favorite neighborhood bar on the corridor, will be forced to move as well; co-owner Craig Wathen told the San Francisco Chronicle he was “priced out” by a huge rent hike.
Because a decade of rent control has locked in my reasonable rent, I can still afford to stay in SoMa, as long as I’m willing to shoulder a life without essential businesses. Unlike residents of the city’s innumerable food deserts, I’m grateful to still have ready access to groceries, though I wonder how long that will last in an era where an Amazon-owned Whole Foods has taken dead aim at disrupting neighborhood grocery stores.
Some landlords of SoMa’s older buildings may not be able to offer laundry to their tenants, but given these buildings’ close proximity to tech jobs, it hasn’t taken much of a bite out of rising rents. Folks who make three times what I do can afford to hire apps to fill the gap; the pair who recently moved into my building regularly clutter the hallway with hefty Rinse and Amazon Fresh bags.
For now, I can still afford to stave off the losses with an app or two. But as the last of my neighborhood’s essential businesses disappear, it seems inevitable that I’ll get worn down and move to a smaller city—one where new condos with in-unit laundry are just within my reach, and where, in five years or ten, the last laundromat will close.