by Sarah Goh, photos by Jaidev Vella
In South Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, Polar Cleaners has made its home at the southwest corner of Rainier Square Plaza for almost 50 years. As the only safe laundromat in the area, Polar Cleaners has become a community lifeline and place for neighbors to gather.
Owner Bonniejean Crone worked at the laundromat for over 30 years and took over the business in April of last year. Today, she is fighting to keep her neighborhood business after Kimco Realty, a real estate corporation headquartered in New York that recently bought the property, abruptly terminated her lease and threatened to move in new tenants. News of this sudden termination spread throughout the community, with many neighbors sending flowers, writing letters, and protesting the removal of their beloved laundromat.
Crone started working in the laundry business when she was 16 years old and has dedicated her life to her customers. “All my life is laundry,” Crone said. “This is my passion. I love doing clothes and I love the people.”
Crone is now 75 years old and continues to work at Polar Cleaners every day. Laundromats staffed by their owners are rare, and many are not staffed at all. Crone refuses to stifle her relationships with her customers and shows up daily to go the extra mile for them.
“Bonniejean is a light,” customer Jamie Felton said. “She greets you in a way that makes your day a little bit better. She remembers you and is good at making people feel seen.”
Crone dedicates extra time to helping customers fold and mend laundry if they have a hard time doing so due to age, disability, or even time constraints in their lives. She provides change for those who don’t have any and will help anyone get an extra-tough stain out.
“I had just gotten a cat who peed all over my stuff,” Felton said. “And Bonnie took the time to help me. She gave me ammonia and showed me how to wash it out.”
Not only is Polar Cleaners the only laundromat to have detailed personal service, it’s the only laundromat that’s safe for customers in the community to use. Two laundromats nearby have experienced shootings, drug deals, and other unsafe situations. In contrast, Crone creates a safe environment by making sure she’s in Polar Cleaners all day. She doesn’t allow drinking or loitering, and ensures that people are there to wash their clothes.
If Polar Cleaners left the neighborhood, there would be no laundromat for people to use — especially for the majority of the community who are low-income, experiencing homelessness, or who can’t afford to drive to another laundromat.
“I can go home to do my laundry,” Crone said. “But these people can’t. My concern is for these people who I’ve known for years. They have nowhere else to go.”
Customer Eric “Cowboy” Pierce says Crone changed his life. Pierce was homeless four years ago and lived out of an RV with his dog. He had struggled with addiction in the past and wanted a new start. Crone welcomed him into her home.
“She took a chance on me,” Pierce said. “She let me move into her house and gave me the full opportunity to work at the laundromat while I went to school.”
Today, Pierce is an instructor at Fifth Wheel Commercial Driving School and has found his own home. He still continues to help Crone out at Polar Cleaners and sometimes brings his guitar in to play for customers.
“Bonnie has lost so much,” Pierce said. “But she still continues to keep this positive attitude and is always kind. She’d help out anybody as long as they’re respectful and honest.”
Even as she continues to care for those around her, Crone herself has experienced extreme hardship. After years of taking care of her son, Crone lost him to muscular dystrophy. Her brother died in a car accident a couple of years ago, and most recently, Crone’s husband passed away right before she took over Polar Cleaners.
The laundromat has become Crone’s home, and she’s committed her life to the business, even refinancing her house to buy Polar Cleaners last year. She was close to the original owners, who desperately wanted her to take over, and Crone wanted to guarantee that the community still had a laundromat to go to.
“I’ve poured my heart and soul into this place, every bit of it,” Crone said. “I got my house refinanced after I lost my husband so I could come back here.”
Crone was assured a five-year lease with the original property owners when she took over Polar Cleaners. But when Kimco Realty Corporation acquired the property, the new owners told Crone that she had to move out.
Crone has not violated her previous lease and has consistently paid the rent. According to the King County Recorder’s Office, there are also no new leases filed for the laundromat space — therefore no reason for Kimco to force Polar Cleaners to move out.
Seattle Councilmember Tammy J. Morales has written to Kimco, stating, “Under the City’s current declaration of a state of emergency, our office passed a Commercial Rent Control Ordinance (Ord 126066) that is still in effect. Under this ordinance, increases in commercial
rents are temporarily restricted, meaning Kimco is unable to charge a higher rent on this property to whomever the new tenant would be until the state of emergency is repealed.”
“I’m really worried,” Crone said. “I have a whole lot of money and time invested, and I have nowhere to go. There’s no place I can put all these machines without it costing a ton of money. I just want five more years here.”
Crone is planning on retiring when she’s 80 years old, but for now, she just wants five more years of taking care of her customers and keeping Seattle clean.
“It’s not anything fancy,” Crone said. “But I’m old school, and I’m all about the people.”
If you want to help Polar Cleaners, you can use the laundromat, sign the petition, or write to your local elected officials asking for “a moratorium on laundromat evictions unless full tenant relocation to a nearby property is provided.”
Polar Cleaners can also use funds to help keep the laundromat running. Donate at the Polar Cleaners GoFundMe.
Sarah Goh is a Singaporean American journalist who graduated from the University of Washington with a dual-degree in biology and journalism. At the intersection of community, science, and humanities, she hopes to elevate marginalized voices and explore the overlooked and unexpected through her writing. Find her at sarahsgoh.com or on Twitter @sarahsgoh.
Jaidev “Jay” Vella is a Seattle-based photographer who recently graduated from Seattle University. His work largely focuses on people and natural elements. Outside of work, he likes to spend his time hiking and listening to music.
📸 Featured Image: Bonniejean Crone standing in front of Polar Cleaners with some clothes dropped off by a customer a little while ago. (Photo: Jaidev Vella)
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!