Winner of the 2021 Françoise Demulder Photography Grants

The world’s largest laundromat is hard to miss with hundreds of washers and dryers spread over 1,300 square meters. The neon lights, shiny metal, and glazed tiles give the place a certain beauty. The laundromat is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, never closing, not even for Thanksgiving or Christmas, or when the temperature drops so low that almost everything else shuts down. It runs on solar energy with rooftop panels as wash cycles spin endlessly in this peaceful haven between work and home in a working-class, largely Hispanic suburb of Chicago.


Every day begins with free coffee and donuts. Families socialize by the machines, and watch TV on giant screens. Near the aviary with finches and doves, are school desks where children can do homework. Before the pandemic, Halloween and Christmas were celebrated here, and magicians, clowns and dancing lessons were some of the activities. Free pizza on Wednesday evenings was a staple for the neighborhood, and on those nights, the local McDonalds would halve their staff numbers. In a working-class suburb of Chicago, the World's Largest Laundromat is a safe place. For more than 50 years there has been a laundromat on this corner of Berwyn, Illinois, but it only took on its name after winning a contest in the 1980s.

Over the years, the laundromat has seen the neighborhood change. Today, 85% of customers are Hispanic, some are undocumented, and during the pandemic many are essential workers. Lulu is originally from Mexico, and is now a U.S. citizen; she has been working at the laundromat for 17 years. Like most of the staff, she is from the local neighborhood and talks about the laundromat as if it were family, and she knows all the customers.

Children are important, as has been understood by the owner, Tom Benson. “I found that at any given time 25% of the people inside the laundromat were under sixteen.” He believes in investing in customers: it is good for business. And the customers make a similar investment, setting off with clean clothes to discover what remains of the American dream.

[The project is a complementary perspective to the upcoming documentary film to be directed by Auberi Edler.]

Darcy Padilla

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