City Beat

City Beat: Mercury Cleaners owners struggle as they are forced out

There’s a piece of paper in a glass display case behind the counter at Mercury Cleaners – evidence of a family’s 20 years of labor and care. It is Daniel Kang’s acceptance letter into the London School of Economics.

Kang’s parents, Helen and Tom, have built a life for their family by pressing and washing clothes at the midtown dry-cleaning shop with the retro sign. They are proud of Daniel and his Berkeley-educated brother. And they are proud when they think of all the men and women who head to their own important jobs every day, dressed in shirts and suits washed at Mercury Cleaners.

“This is my life,” Helen Kang said.

It is crashing around her.

The Department of General Services, a massive state agency, owns the 16th Street building that houses the Kangs’ shop. Earlier this year, the department revealed that an inspection of the property discovered contaminated soil and groundwater. The Kangs later received a letter from the Capitol Area Development Authority (CADA) that said the shop “may be making the pollution problem worse.”

“I take care of my business,” Helen said. “We didn’t understand.”

Another letter carried a daunting message: If the Kangs don’t get out by May 29, the state will change the locks on the front door.

Helen and Tom Kang moved here 25 years ago from Seoul, South Korea. They are gentle people who get lots of holiday cards from loyal customers.

The state’s warning came a month after Tom broke his back in a car wreck. That left Helen to work 12-hour days, six days a week. She said it’s been unbearable, helping her husband, running the business and worrying about what’s next.

“I’m giving up,” she said.

It’s not a great solution, but Helen said she’ll probably open a drop-off and pick-up store in a nearby building. CADA has offered her four rent-free months in the space and a reasonable bill of $1,200 a month after that. The agency’s director, Wendy Saunders, said CADA has “tried so hard to help.”

Modern apartment buildings are going up on the blocks around Mercury. Saunders said CADA isn’t closing the shop to make way for more, but she acknowledged, “Ultimately, we see it as a new development site.”

Helen worries her customers won’t follow her if she moves. She said the new space doesn’t have room or proper ventilation for her dry-cleaning machines, and she’ll have to send clothes to other shops to be washed.

She just wants more time. More time to make a decision. More time to arrange a move. More time to make sure her customers are proud of what they see when they look in the mirror.

“It’s 20 years,” she said. “I have no energy to fight. My power is gone.”

She paused to lift her glasses. Her fingers wiped away tears.

“I’m not ready,” she said.

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