After making headlines for their successful, community-backed Kickstarter campaign, the much-anticipated Kitty’s Launderette has finally opened its doors. The washhouse-cum-community space on the border of Everton and Anfield is the newest member of a crop of social enterprises across the Merseyside area, all working together to create local solutions to societal problems. Anfield-based Tom Doubtfire talks to the organisers behind the launderette to gauge the scope of this mass-collaboration, and the new forms of grass-roots organisation that are inspiring them.
KITTY’S LAUNDERETTE is a new social enterprise functioning as a washhouse in the Everton area of Liverpool, aiming to provide an affordable and ecological laundry service while also providing a space for people to gather, spend time and learn. Kitty’s was named in honour of Kitty Wilkinson, the Irish migrant worker who founded the first public washhouse in Liverpool and became known as ‘the Saint of the Slums’ for her pioneering work. Underpinning this whole business is a wish for autonomy and better control over our own lives. Social projects like these are transforming Liverpool by inches – and they raise a hopeful question: with a space of our own, how can we begin to reshape the world around us?
After going to one of their gatherings in October last year, it was empowering to feel that I was just a part (even if very minute) of bringing this project to life. Kitty’s Launderette officially opened on the morning of 18th May this year, with a busy opening party during the evening, and then hosted a night of live Irish music in the form of a céilí from Mikey Kenney and Friends the following evening. During the day, the space was used as a playschool for children. The washhouse’s profits as a business are invested directly into the local community, through their myriad programmes and through direct employment. Now sat right at the end of Grasmere Street, they hope to become a useful asset to the local community through hosting events showcasing music and art, film screenings and workshops as part of wider goal of centring people-focused activity, adding value to the local area.
They are not alone in this. Homebaked Anfield have been a valuable resource in sharing knowledge and skills during the years prior to Kitty’s opening their doors. They have grown from an art project which asked the simple question ‘what does it mean to live well?’ into a multi-faceted business which puts local people at the core of its decision-making.
Initially, Kitty’s used Homebaked, another cooperative and community focused enterprise in Anfield, as a proxy space to host meetings and events to gather thoughts, feelings and ideas about how people saw the launderette functioning and operating in the future. Throughout the three years the business was preparing to open, events like this enabled them to get a feel for what people in the area would be interested in using the space for, as well as being a way of bringing people together of all ages in a fun and relaxed, but productive, environment. At Kitty’s, they speak openly of how important this accessibility to these spaces was. “You’d go there and have your lunch,” says launderette co-ordinator Grace Harrison, “and it would be like a sandwich and a question on a daily basis.”
For Grace, Homebaked is a crucial model for what they want to achieve. “I think there is something really powerful about seeing the success of all the hard work they put in, and the degree to which it has been really taken on by a whole range of people who now use and love that space, so I think that also gave us a lot of confidence that what we were trying to do was complementary and comparable.” Inspired by their conversations on the social high street, Kitty’s Launderette are following the likes of Homebaked in taking ownership of the spaces that are likely to become derelict over the next few years. Rather than being a collection of impersonal spaces, the high street in and around Anfield is transforming into somewhere packed with character and warmth.
Through the community’s openness and willingness to share knowledge, time and resources, Kitty’s have been able to build upon the work of other community-focused organisations in Liverpool. Rather than start from scratch, places such as Homebaked, Rotunda, Rice Lane City Farm, Squash and Blackburne House have been happy to help at various points from conception. As Grace explains, this is rare: “In the traditional third sector where you are grant dependent, you end up being in competition with people who should be your collaborators.” A dedication to support those who ultimately share our goals is one part of a wider ethos formed around the fundamental belief Grace expresses. “What people can achieve together is greater than what any one person can achieve on their own.”
In the context of growing austerity, and a government which still chooses to pursue a ‘there is no alternative’ narrative in favour of severe public service cuts and centralised decision making, the UK seems to be divided on what the future should look like. It becomes increasingly clear that elites and politicians alike are unable or unwilling to address the complex problems people face in the world around them.
Communities have always found ways to care for themselves through taking matters into their own hands, and Kitty’s Launderette is one such business hoping to pump money back into the local community. For Kitty’s Launderette, creative thinking is integral to the world they are trying to build a corner of. “In our dream scenario,” says Grace, “it’s that we continue to value creative thinking as the business goes forward and we see that as not supplementary but integral.” In a time when funding for creative courses is the first to be squeezed, Kitty’s are intent on recognising the value of creative labour. “[That’s] also part of the social impact, because, as an artist, I think artists should be paid for the stuff they do, and often they’re not – so we, as the business, can recognise value and remunerate for creative involvement.”
It has become clear that the only way to solve some of the toughest issues facing people in the UK is through creative thinking and behaving with a certain nuance. It feels necessary now, as it always has been, to properly recognise the creative labour of artists, musicians and performers. Creatives work not only to give platforms to voices and experiences, but to add value and meaning into our lives. By ensuring that this business functions firstly as a launderette, Kitty’s hopes that this will enable them to become much more involved with a whole range of creative activity happening in Liverpool.
Kitty’s recognise the contexts which make creativity inaccessible to people and wants to break them down. “We can just commission the work that we think is going to look good, or that the artist wants to make – we don’t have to think about someone else’s agenda.” Autonomy here is key. Through being a self-sustaining business, they can support people. This could take the form of commissioning artists to do a piece of work to be displayed somewhere in the local area, or creating more local jobs which pay a living wage; two examples where autonomy would be brought about through income generation, which was a big motivating factor in the early stages of setting up Kitty’s.
The team of nine (Grace, Ehsan, Louis, Rachael, Kerrie, Kathy, Natalie, Kirsty and Michelle) aim to ensure that the project is led by as many people as possible through active listening; being open to and in favour of change. This is a business that started as a small group with an idea, but now wishes to cater not only to locals but also those who live further afield. Figuring out how they can begin to support and be supported by people who don’t live locally is something they admit will start to become clearer over the next few months. They recognise the only way to make a space as accessible as possible is through allowing people to be actively involved in shaping how the space functions in the future.
The Talk Of The Washhouse project is one way they have been able to do this.. As part of their ongoing research into washhouses as important social spaces, Kitty’s run weekly drop-in conversation sessions for collecting local memories of washhouses. Supported by the heritage project, this aims to collect stories from people sharing their past experiences of being in launderettes to produce a lasting archive. Grace describes how this process has allowed forgotten pasts to be rediscovered: “We were finding out that the washhouse was a site of social life, particularly for women, and there is hardly anything written about that. Working class women’s history is largely unrecorded so this is a really important project for us.”
Through listening to and harnessing memories and stories about the washhouse as a place of social activity, they hope to produce a telling archive which not only accommodates for the nostalgia of a shared past, but guides us along the path towards a shared future. By actively listening to stories and the people telling them, their enterprise continues to be “informed by the things that people really care about. People have told us what was great about it was this or that, and we can build that into how we do things – that allows people to be heard, and know their experiences are valuable and cared about.”
There is a recognition here that every interaction and encounter, whether it be between members of the team or discussions with the public, have all been equally vital in allowing the business to open. “It’s really important that this business is owned by, and led by, as many people as possible, because that is how it will be strong as a business,” Grace tells me. Funding has helped the business reach a certain point of comfort, but above all, conversations between people, and continuous mutual support are what injects energy and life into this space, and that is what will help the launderette sustain itself in the future – Kitty’s recognise the value of people – “the guy at Homebaked who comes in everyday and tells a joke and gets off”. It feels important and valuable to recognise how spaces such as Kitty’s, which have managed to become relatively autonomous, and are dedicated to working with people, can not only improve the conditions that we live in, but begin to completely shift the way we relate and interact with one another.
The city of Preston offers one inspiring example of how businesses such as Kitty’s fit into wider societal models which offer crucial infrastructural change. As a reaction to cuts to local council and big businesses pulling out of planned regeneration work, Preston shifted their thinking towards principals of municipal socialism, and began to carry out community wealth building often through using the services of local businesses. Preston City Council now works with institutions like schools, universities and hospitals to provide contracts to businesses operating in and around Preston rather than outsourcing to private national companies. The result is more wealth being kept and spent between people within the local area. There has also been a successful push for companies to adopt the Living Wage, as well as the creation of the Preston Co-operative Development Network, which aims to promote worker co-operatives and employee buy-outs of businesses, for example. When a council reduces the control they have, this allows people to have greater control over their own agendas. Much needed regeneration, but achieved through focused organisation and community led businesses, committed to steering well clear of private companies, who too often favour quick profits at the expense of real investment in the area and the people living there.
There is an alternative to austerity and cuts, which is actually listening to the concerns people have in a more positive and proactive way. We should reject the manifestation of racism and nationalism that has become prominent in discussions around how the UK has shifted and changed, and switch our thinking to how we can tackle capital to improve everyone’s quality of life. Simplified narratives and political slogans are not what will provide this. As Grace says, “It’s just great, because you don’t even have to get into a particularly theoretical conversation. You know, all these racists who are going round, talking about making England great, and of forgotten towns – this is the answer to that, and it is actually trying to listen to those concerns, and do something about them in a proactive way that’s tackling capital more than it is blaming it on people who aren’t actually to blame.” There is power in recognising the complexity of the world around us, and one alternative which will begin to produce positive change is a greater care for those around you, enacted through active community organising which allows people to have more power over the decisions that affect their lived experiences.
If we’re interested in the sort of social impact that Kitty’s Launderette hopes to be able to carry out in the future, then our support is vital. Whether this means doing your laundry there, employing Kitty’s as your commercial laundry service, working with them on a project you have in mind, or spending time in the space, your support will become a key part of a much wider network of people all pushing for positive and meaningful change in our communities and in our city.
Words: Tom Doubtfire
Kitty’s Launderette is open Monday, Thursday and Friday 9.30am to 8pm, and 10am to 8pm on Saturdays and Sundays. If you would like to contribute to the Talk Of The Washhouse project then there are drop-in sessions specifically for that with Kerrie running every Thursday at the launderette from 1pm until 8pm.