Laundromat called 'Heart of Neighborhood' struggles after explosion at nearby apt. complex

Mr. Kim's Rainbow: Laundromat called 'Heart of Neighborhood' struggles after explosion at nearby apartment complex. (Photo: ABC7's Jay Korff)

In some neighborhoods, the laundromat is an extension of home. For Barbara Richardson that place is Rainbow Coin Laundry in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“Well, I’m here once a week. These are my clothes that I’m folding up that I’ve already washed,” says Barbara Richardson.

It didn’t take first time customer Mariana Jones long to realize that she would be back.

“It was nice. You know I had a lot of help from Mr. Kim,” says customer Mariana Jones.

Jones is referring to hands-on laundromat owner Nok Kim who helped her load items.

Jones says, “I couldn’t reach all the way to put in the soap so he did it for me so that was a blessing. Thank God.”

Kim has dedicated more than a decade at this location building a loyal customer base through sincere service.

“So I’m pretty much a handyman. I like most of the machines. So I chose a laundromat. So I like this job,” says Kim.

During that time this tight-knit, ethnically diverse community known as Long Branch has blossomed. The colors of Mr. Kim’s rainbow spreading to nearby storefronts.

To build community, people need to feel welcome along with a place to gather. Kim’s business is, in a way, Long Branch’s public square.

The coin laundry hosts a weekly art class for children and the program is paid by the Montgomery Housing Partnership.

“This is really good community work to be honest. Providing an outlet. Both are productive. The parents are doing laundry and the kids are learning new skills,” says art teacher Rebeca Carvajal.

And Washington Adventist University has long supported an award-winning tutoring program for this community’s children that’s been held here.

Washington Adventist University Associate Professor of Economics Denver Swaby says, “He’s not just concerned about himself and making a profit from his business. He sees it as an integral part of the community.”

For all that Kim has done to nurture this neighborhood there’s nothing his hopeful heart or his business acumen could have done to anticipate the darkness that descended upon this community one August night.

Richardson says, “When I heard about it that morning I couldn’t quite figure out and I started getting it and I found out it was the apartments across the street. Yup, that was really, really sad.”

While scores of families slept on a summer’s night in 2016, natural gas filled the meter room of the Flower Branch apartments. The ensuing explosion obliterated much of the building. Among the seven dead, children.

Those who survived fled this vanquished landscape. Most never returned. Many apartment residents cleaned their clothes a couple blocks away at Rainbow Coin Laundry.

“I’m feeling so bad. They all had to move. I don’t know where they are moving to,” says Kim.

Kim figures he lost 100 steady customers: an essential part of the business.

“You know what, I noticed, the place used to be packed but now it’s very thin when you come in,” says long-time customer Barbara Richardson.

To make matters worse, his older model machines use more water than newer machines, costing him more money. Debts are piling up. His future here is uncertain.

“I don’t want to close this down. I don’t want to lose my business,” says Kim.

Paul Grenier with Montgomery Housing Partnership says, “It’s tough. It’s sad. Why is it such a big deal? All I can say is that it is a big deal. People need to look at the whole picture: of a person’s life, of the life of the community, of all the lives that this impacts. It’s not just about a business.”

Grenier is looking for other ways for Kim to save and make money: a loyalty program, a delivery service, and lower water rates negotiated through the region’s utility company.

“If you were a billionaire I’d be on my knees please help us right now. We don’t have a whole lot of time,” says Grenier.

For as long as many can remember, Nok Kim was this community’s foundation: strong and nurturing. Now the hope is that Long Branch’s home away from home stays intact.

“I hope he stays in business and I’ll be coming back Mr. Kim. I’ll be coming back, yeah,” says Jones.

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