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Column: Right-to-dry movement gets its day in the sun in California

The laundry director for Camp Emerald Bay, the Boy Scout camp on Catalina Island, hangs laundry out to dry in July of 2012.

The laundry director for Camp Emerald Bay, the Boy Scout camp on Catalina Island, hangs laundry out to dry in July of 2012.

(Los Angeles Times)

Last week, amid all the excitement (if that’s the right word) over Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of a right-to-die bill for California, a smaller, quieter — and rhyming — law was also passed. Assembly Bill 1448, nicknamed the “right to dry,” makes it illegal for landlords and homeowners associations to prohibit drying laundry outside on a clothesline or rack.

Of course, as with the right-to-die bill, slippery slope-fueled paranoia can strike deep. Opponents of the End of Life Options Act worried that allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives could lead to doctors playing God or family members hastening the deaths of burdensomely sick or disabled relatives.

The right to dry offers its own cascade of doomsday scenarios. Now that those real estate devaluing eyesores called clotheslines are protected, ratty porch sofas can’t be far off. Then what? Large flocks of plastic flamingos staked into the ground? Every garden gnome and Bigfoot statue in the SkyMall catalog? Artificial grass?

Oh, wait, that last example is not only tolerable, it’s a status symbol because watering is frowned on these days.

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What could be more emblematic of the contemporary California lifestyle now than a luxurious fake lawn complemented by a clothesline strung between two palm trees?

In the fourth year of a drought, California is essentially one big clothes dryer. What could be more emblematic of the contemporary California lifestyle now than a luxurious fake lawn complemented by a clothesline strung between two palm trees? How much do you want to bet that this week, with temperatures in the L.A. area in the 90s even near the beaches, your underwear would have dried quicker in your backyard than in your Kenmore?

As a class signifier, the clothesline has always been highly charged. In the late 1960s, tumble dryers began to creep their way into middle-class households — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fewer than half of American households had dryers in 1980; by 2009, it had jumped to 80% — the clothesline has connoted a certain unsophistication if not downright poverty.

That’s especially true in big cities, where clotheslines hanging between buildings are an indelible marker of tenement living and overall blight. I visited Beijing a couple of years ago, and hanging laundry was ubiquitous even on the balconies of expensive high-rises. During the 2008 Olympic Games, I was told, the Chinese government prohibited outdoor clotheslines as part of an overall image-control effort. As soon as the Games were over, the laundry went back up.

For all the air pollution in their cities, many Chinese insist that sunshine is healthier for drying clothes and they don’t want modern dryers, even if they can afford them. That’s an attitude the American “right to dry” movement — an environmental cause that seeks to lower carbon emissions by making “hanging out” trendy — would love to see in greater supply here. One organization within that movement, Project Laundry List, sponsors a series of art programs that pay tribute to the aesthetic beauty of the clothesline. Its mission statement includes the hope that “hanging laundry will be commonplace throughout the world.”

Well, mission accomplished on that one. In many parts of the world, people consider themselves lucky just to have clean water for washing clothes, let alone some magic drying machine. As for romantic images of clean sheets blowing in the breeze, I’m a sucker for that as much as anyone. But forsaking a dryer for a clothesline does not an Andrew Wyeth canvas make. There’s a reason the realist painter, known for his gauzy renditions of rural life, depicted diaphanous linens rather than frumpy undergarments and heavy-metal concert T-shirts drying on a line.

There’s also a reason that the folks who do clotheslines best in the U.S. may be the Amish. Their mostly black, always simple garments can create an effect that might actually add value — or at least mystique — to their properties. No sweatpants with “Juicy” written across the rear blowing in the wind there.

Of course, the sad irony of California’s right-to-dry law is that it was passed on the cusp of what may be the wettest winter in decades. If the rains of El Niño are as torrential as some anticipate, most line drying will have to happen indoors. Maybe it will usher in a “right to wash” movement, in which case neighbors could find all sorts of new ways to annoy each other — for instance, collecting rainwater in buckets and pounding their clothes clean on old-fashioned washboards. That, literally and figuratively, would bring any neighborhood to its knees.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Twitter: @meghan_daum

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