Last Friday, 60 people shared a meal, but no one could see what they were eating.
All sat blindfolded at the dinner table in a Mission District basement, where they could feel, with their hands, a steamer in front of them, a jar of water, a pile of napkins, and not much else. They had come for a “dinner in the dark” event at The Laundry, a new arts and events space at 26th and Capp streets that aims to both provide a platform for artists and create new ways for people to connect.
For decades, the building was an actual laundry – Lacrouts-Lyonnaise French Laundry – but it sat empty for a year before a group of friends who had met at Google saw it on the market in 2013 and purchased it. They spent the next three years removing rows of washing machines, cleaning up toxic chemicals and excavating the basement.
Although the art spaces have opened at different times in the last year and the cafe opened with limited hours in February, the building will have an official grand opening for the cafe on June 17.
Few signs of the past remain in the building, with its clean walls, a carpet on the floors, and comfortable living room couches. Still, the space is full of hints of what was there: old wood floors were repurposed into The Laundry’s tables and chairs, and scattered around are old irons and washing boards donated by the previous owners.
Cynthia Boedihardjo, who manages The Laundry, said they keep the space simple to accommodate a wide variety of events. Among other things, they have done yoga with live music accompaniment and have also hosted the Mission Arts Performance Project (MAPP), a free performance event that takes place in venues across the neighborhood every other month.
There is an art gallery in the back that recently exhibited five Slovakian artists in a show called Regular Line Topolcany. Even with the visual art shows, Boedihardjo says the Laundry takes an interactive approach by hosting artist talks and workshops associated with the exhibition.
“Instead of drinking, we want people to just actually be present and connect with one another and meet strangers in a way that’s easily approachable,” Boedihardjo said.
Boedihardjo cited The Laundry’s “three C” policy: creating community through creativity and connection. When she worked at Google, Boedihardjo was part of the company’s livestreaming team and produced footage of music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo.
The programs she puts on at the Laundry are a bit different. She hopes the space becomes a hub for people who are too often connected digitally but not close enough in real life.
It was with this goal in mind that 60 people found themselves sitting in the basement blindfolded and passing trays of food down a communal table. The meal was messy, perhaps intentionally so; there was no silverware, and in the dark, passing the trays required tapping people on the shoulder to alert them that the food was there. Sometimes the food got lost down the line. Other times, confusion spread about how much of each dish to take (to the detriment of the people at the very end).
Between each course, Michelle Wang, who organized the event as a part of Momentary, which creates dining experiences based on psychology, led the group through mindfulness exercises. She asked them to come to terms with the vulnerability and uncertainty that accompanied the experience with, as she put it, “not having our phones, not having our vision, not having utensils.”
The Laundry has hosted other dinners, including one where guests, many strangers, had to answer personal questions written on cards. Boedihardjo said she feels people do make connections.
At the dinner in the dark, although most had come in groups, the organizers encouraged them to sit with people they did not know. Strangers chatted, assisted one another and laughed when they made mistakes. Jimmy, who owns a pool-building company in the East Bay, shared a story about meeting a local pop star in a rehab in Thailand.
Some of the events, like the regular poetry open-mic, are free, while others have a range of price tags – the dinner in the dark, for instance, cost close to $100 a person. Although originally designed for couples, the event drew a variety of people.
Natasha, a psychiatrist and friend of the organizer, came with her mother Lida. Jimmy was celebrating his 25th birthday with his parents, sister, girlfriend and best friend Nate.
Boedihardjo said that, so far, the events have not attracted as many neighborhood residents as she would like. Now, with the entire building completed and the cafe up and running, she hopes the grand opening on June 17 will put The Laundry on the Mission’s radar.
And it might clear up some things for the handful of people Boedihardjo said have walked in, confused, clutching baskets of laundry.