Walking around my fine — and often infuriating — adopted home of New York City, I have found myself frequently wondering one thing: What in the hell is an organic dry cleaner and why are there so many of them all of a sudden?
A. They’re legitimate businesses that have completely swapped out or offer alternatives to the dry cleaning industry’s longtime solvent of choice, perchloroethylene (“perc”), with liquefied carbon dioxide, liquefied silicone, or, most commonly, petrochemical-based hydrocarbons. While there are indeed health/environmental concerns that come along with some of these alternatives
, their reputations are not nearly as dubious as perc, a substance that’s classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a likely human carcinogen. And by the way, traditional perc-based dry cleaning isn’t actually dry at all — clothes are simply washed in machines filled with synthetic chemicals in lieu of water.
B. They’re good ol’ perc-based dry cleaners that uses buzzwords like “organic,” “eco-friendly,” or “natural” in advertising and store signage to lure customers concerned about the health effects of percs and other dry cleaning solvents. It’s greenwashing at its finest.
C. They're a signal that the real estate seeds of change are a-blowin’ in neighborhoods across New York City and that the rent on your super-affordable studio apartment may soon rise.
I’ve been noticing “organic, "green," and “natural” dryer cleaners popping up in my end of Brooklyn for years now. Most of these businesses are existing dry cleaners that had slapped on new awnings and put up additional signage to declare their newfound eco-friendly business model. I have no clue if any of these rebranded cleaners actually shifted away from the use of perc at all as there is no regulation or enforcement. Similarly, I've been seeing a ton of self-described natural and organic delis that are pretty much the same as regular bodegas but with better lighting and a bunch of Dr. Bronner products displayed in the window.
Although organic dry cleaning has positively exploded all around
my zip code, in my own neighborhood, a peninsular, slow-to-gentrify fishing village of sorts, there isn’t even a single dedicated dry cleaning business, organic or not. Instead, we get IKEA
, a Stumptown coffee roastery, and a seafood shack operated by the daughter of Maury Povich.
Elsewhere across the boroughs, organic dry cleaners are popping up at a speed not quite seen before. The New York Times
believes their proliferation to be the latest indicator of gentrification — the most obvious neighborhood-changer since Starbucks. As for certain parts of Brooklyn, organic dry cleaning businesses are following the lead of "head-to-tail butchers and the boutique bike shops.” (My neighborhood has at least two of the latter).
Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University explains to the Times: We’ve gone way beyond organic food, and Starbucks is passé. Organic cleaners have become a barometer.”
The Times points out that Yelp reviews and search engines reveal that the highest concentration of organic dry cleaners are in affluent neighborhoods of Manhattan but that they've also spread throughout the other boroughs. Jimmy Im, proprietor of Joy S. Organic Dry Cleaners in Kew Gardens, Queens, explains that an influx of new clientele was behind his decision to rebrand as an eco-friendly business: “Most of the old customers who have been coming here for years, they don’t care; they just want the cheapest thing. But the neighborhood changed, and more people became concerned.”
Packard Square Cleaners in Long Island City, Queens, a neighborhood that’s really changed over the past decade, recently started offering organic dry cleaning after over 40 years in business. “People started asking for it,” explains manager Jose Rojas.
However, the scourge of organic dry cleaners hasn’t spread everywhere: "... there appear to be vast bare patches, especially in the Bronx and on Staten Island, and calls to dry cleaners in many areas to inquire about eco-friendly options yielded the same answer, various versions of 'Huh?'"
In 2010, councilwoman and current candidate for Manhattan borough president Jessica Lappin introduced a bill
that would require all new and existing dry cleaning businesses that advertise themselves as green to meet certain criteria and apply for a special license. The bill was essentially DOA.
Says Lappin: "Organic dry cleaners are popping up everywhere, and unlike if you go buy a tomato that says ‘organic,’ you have no sense of what it means. It’s not regulated in any way, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
Well, it does mean something: You'd better start looking at apartment rentals across the Hudson. Or in Philadelphia.