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A New Spin on Neighborhood Art


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NOW IT HAS BEEN SAID that journalists are lazy bastards and that much of what appears in print is within walking distance of the journalist's office. That theory is only party true, but when I saw the flier for a MACLA-sponsored movie at the dive Laundromat at Second and William streets around the corner, I nearly broke out in tears from laughing so hard.

That dump?

You've got to be kidding me, I thought. For years, I saw more haggard toothless hookers parading around that corner than anywhere else in downtown San Jose. People with no shirts or shoes would be in the place doing their laundry while crackheads peddled their wares outside. The place was riddled with graffiti, garbage and unsavory characters. So when MACLA, two doors down from Metro, decided to paint the place and show a community screening of an animated film, I had to get the skinny. That sounded too ridiculous to be true.

It turned out the place is called Singh's Laundromat (no relation, I swear), and MACLA had the same reaction to it that I did.

"We walked by the Laundromat and said, 'Wow, that's ugly,'" says Tamara Alvarado, MACLA's executive director.

But the whole project is part of MACLA's effort to get in touch with the local community and encourage neighborhood folks to get to know one another.

"At MACLA, we've always been involved with different neighborhoods, but not necessarily our own neighborhood," explains Alvarado. "We started doing a couple of different focus groups in the neighborhood, and said, 'What d'ya all wanna see in your neighborhood?' And how we can serve as a connector, if you will, between the different types of residents that live in the neighborhood now as opposed to 10 years ago?"

So they painted the inside of the place and put up vinyl lettering, and voila, a movie house was born. Local residents were then invited to wash their clothes and eat popcorn while watching a movie in the middle of the day.

"We just said, 'Hey Singh, we noticed a lot of malarkey goes down at your Laundromat and are you willing to work with us?'" Alvarado says. "Part of our project is to work with small business owners. And he said, 'Go for it.'"

About 15 people showed up, and some even asked if MACLA would show movies every week.

"We know a little paint goes a long way," Alvarado said. "We're not done with the place yet. We're thinking about having a poetry night there. Like doing something at nighttime. It's experimental. The people who were there loved it."

After all, the Laundromat is perhaps the ultimate public space. A Laundromat can be a lonely space or a people-watching space, but it is an anonymous space. No one talks to each other. You just hate it when folks look at your dirty laundry. That's not good. There's always a sock left behind that no one wants to pick up and throw out. And MACLA is changing all this.

"A lot of conversations that we've had with people have centered around the fact that people don't know each other,' Alvarado said. "Time and time again, people have said, 'We want to get to know our neighbors.' It comes up every single time we've had a formal focus group or an informal thing."

So there you have it. Something should be said for taking a dumpy Laundromat and doing something artistic with it. At Wash America on Santa Clara Street, you get blind-sided by the distorted classical music, but not at Singh's Laundromat.

The idea is that the more public spaces there are, the better, as more people will establish a sense of community. Even in Laundromats. Everyone has a Laundromat idea, so all you panty-stealing perverts out there, get ready. And Laundromats represent the last frontier when it comes to anarchically taking over a public space without regulatory difficulties and authoritarian intervention. Being the radical art movement that it is, MACLA figured this out. And no, I'm not just writing about this because the place is around the corner from my office.

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From the May 18-24, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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