Combination laundromat and community center keeps South Memphis fresh

Just beyond South Bellevue viaduct is South Memphis Alliance, a nonprofit that serves Soulsville and all of South Memphis. Founded in 2000 by Reginald Milton, SMA’s main mission is to support youth in foster care by finding jobs, education, and housing opportunities. But the organization’s desire to support the surrounding neighborhood led to the creation of the Social Suds Resource Center — a unique hybrid of a laundromat and social services center.  

Social Suds Resource Center evolved to meet the needs of the community. In 2006, SMA moved into its current location at 1048 South Bellevue Boulevard. Milton noticed that SMA clients were spending a lot of time next door at the laundromat. When the building came up for sale, SMA seized the opportunity and re-imagined the space's function.

“The hour that it takes to wash clothes is an hour to give people services,” said Milton. SMA took ownership of the facility in 2006, and in 2008 began a funding campaign to renovate the space and turn it into the laundromat resource center.

According to Milton, when the laundromat was purchased, many of the machines and lights were broken, and the facility was occasionally used by gamblers. The Assisi Foundation provided $400,000 to renovate the space inside, which included installing quality washers and dryers, and the Social Suds Resource Center officially in 2013.  The resource center pays for itself and serves the community.

People can use social services, like tax preparation or HIV testing, while they wait for their laundry to finish at the Social Suds Resource Center. (Tamara Williamson)

“The laundromat helps fund some of our other programs [for foster children],” said Tiffany Turnage, SMA’s program director. “The proceeds may provide lunch or dinner for youth served.”

According to SMA, 33 percent of area residents earn less than $10,000 a year and 75 percent of children live below the poverty line.

At the resource center, SMA staff posts job listings, including listings for companies who hire ex-offenders. There is also a playroom for children accompanying their parents doing laundry duty, with books donated by Porter Leath and Books from Birth as well as puzzles and toys. On any given day, local agencies that offer free legal services or free tax preparation  set up at a table in the resource center ready to offer support to people waiting while their clothes are being washed. 

With an eye toward sexual health, Free Condoms Memphis, a program of Planned Parenthood, offers free condoms at the resource center and Planned Parenthood offers free HIV testing.

An average of ten people utilize the free testing services each month, which is especially crucial because Memphis experiences high rates of HIV.

The social services offered at the resource center are requested by the community members. SMA performs surveys and has a suggestion box to gauge community need.  “When we hear what someone needs, we try to find an agency that matches that need,” said Milton.

The Social Suds Resource Center has steady traffic throughout the week and it picks up in the afternoons and on weekends. In 2017, South Memphis Alliance hosted a free laundry day which was well received.

“For that population, when they are doing their laundry, they aren’t spending money on something else,” said Milton.  “So when you free up that money, those are critical dollars people can spend on other things they need.”

William Harold has been a patron of the laundromat since before the facility was taken over by SMA.
An archive photo of a dairy kiosk that used to sit across from the laundromat property. The South Memphis Alliance now owns the lot. (University of Memphis)“It’s a great place for the neighborhood,” said Harold. “It’s a nice place, there’s nothing bad about it. Anything [SMA] can do to help, they do it.”

SMA also owns the property across the street from its headquarters, the former site of the Klinke-Reed Dairy at 1039 South Bellevue, which once featured a gigantic milk bottle atop the building. The dairy building was demolished in 2012 as part of the city’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The building itself was riddled with asbestos, and several inches of the soil had to be removed upon demolition because of lead contamination. The gigantic milk bottle is now housed at the Children’s Museum of Memphis, but SMA has not finalized its plans for what to do with the former dairy property.

With the dairy building gone, Milton and his colleagues are now conscious of what people see when they are driving down Bellevue Boulevard and officially arrive in the area of South Memphis. 

“We are trying to develop the entrance to Soulsville,” said Milton. As such, SMA purchased one of the six warehouses across the street at 1020 South Bellevue, and they have plans to create hub site for service agencies that can have office space there. “It’s a continuation of the laundromat concept,” he said. They expect to begin renovations in April of this year.

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Read more articles by Tamara Williamson.

Tamara is a native Memphian and has a B.A. and M.A. from UT Knoxville. She has previously written guest posts for I Love Memphis blog.