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Tosha Wilson and Jacqui White would like to put a new spin on doing the wash.
Three years ago, Ms. Wilson, a proud Evanstonian now living in Zion, Ill., began to consider giving back to her hometown by starting a business in the City’s underserved Fifth Ward.
Her idea, both practical and poetic, is to create a laundromat that offers more than hard plastic chairs and a soak and tumble.
“Laundromats always look so boring,” Ms. Wilson says. Learning that people spend an average of two hours doing their wash, she asked herself, “Why not provide something comfortable” – comfy chairs, light snacks, coffee and tea? Why not combine a laundromat and a café, as the Danes have done in the Copenhagen hybrid she found on the Internet?
Driving from Lake County to her job as an officer with the Evanston Police Department, Ms. Wilson has had time to embellish her scheme, which she says she believes will be one step to building a Black economy in Evanston and will help Evanston’s Black population by “promot[ing] equity through economic development,”
For 11 years an EPD detective, she is now a member of the Problem Solving team. Off-duty, she sees the Laundry Café as one solution to a problem with the Fifth Ward: It is bereft of banking facilities, schools and businesses – the things that animate a neighborhood.
As her idea began to take shape, Ms. Wilson realized she would not succeed by herself. She approached a trusted confidante, her cousin Jacqui White. An Evanston resident, Ms. White is a police officer in Highland Park. She and Ms. Wilson grew up together, both living on Florence Avenue in the Second Ward, next to the traditionally Black Fifth Ward where they spent much time. They attended District 65 schools and graduated from Evanston Township High School a few years apart. Ms. Wilson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University in Mass Communications and a master’s from Loyola Law School in Children’s Law and Policy. Ms. White got a degree in Psychology with a minor in Criminal Justice from Northeastern Illinois University.
Ms. White agreed to partner with Ms. Wilson in the Laundry Café. With a nod to their old street address, they incorporated the business as Florence Kid Inspired LLC. A year ago, they launched a GoFundMe campaign online with a goal of raising $200,000. That big figure takes into account the high cost of machines for a laundromat, Ms. Wilson says.
The cousins continue to fortify their business savvy. On June 20, they completed a Community Business Academy course given by Sunshine Enterprises. The 12 consecutive three-hour weekly sessions moved online when the COVID-19 virus struck.
The CBA was a good fit for the Laundry Café project. It is designed to help high-potential entrepreneurs living in under-resourced neighborhoods to grow their businesses and transform their neighborhoods. It covers topics like budgeting, marketing, bookkeeping, cash flow, pricing strategies and credit building. After graduation, Sunshine Enterprises continues to support new entrepreneurs with coaching, workshops and events.
The two women know they have a long way to go. “This is hard and this is scary to want to take on something so grand, but we’re fighters and we believe in our town and its people,” Ms. Wilson wrote in a blog.
They were hoping for grassroots support – many contributors giving small amounts, buying in to the project – and they have it. The community has responded with enthusiasm. As of July 11, 199 donors had contributed $13,853, most in modest amounts of $10 or $20. Earlier, the bank denied them a start-up loan, but Ms. Wilson is optimistic that the number of donations will be persuasive.
The project is a way, Ms. Wilson says, for people “to be together again” in a neighborhood she describes as “fragmented” and sometimes “corporate and unwelcoming.” She recalls when it was possible to “grocery shop, get [our] hair cut, go to the dentist, go to the doctor and cash [a] check at the Currency Exchange right at Church and Dodge.”
She adds, “We need new roots.”
Poetry sessions, Thursday night pizza and doing homework together are among the ways she envisions the Laundry Café’s recapturing some of that community feel.
Going forward, a lot depends on real estate. Space in the Fifth Ward is pricey, Ms. Wilson says; she figures the house she grew up in would cost nearly half a million dollars to buy and rehab. They have their eyes on an ideal building, but for now, the cost is prohibitive.
The cousins considered a laundromat for sale in Skokie, but their hearts are set on Evanston, on restoring to the Fifth Ward the pride and vitality they remember from their childhood. “Location is essential to the dream,” Ms. Wilson wrote in an email.
More information is available at https://www.facebook.com/TheLaundryCafeEvanston/.