Organic Consumers Association

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'Right to Dry' Bill Left Blowing in R.I. Wind

For centuries, the hanging of clothes outside to dry in the sun was a common practice. That changed, at least in the United States, in the 1950s with the arrival of the suburban ideal of modern living.

Wet, flapping clothes soon became an aesthetic issue. Homeowners associations began claiming clotheslines lowered neighborhood property values by 15 percent to 20 percent. Opponents quickly began repeating the same claim: "Modern homeowners don't like seeing people's underwear in public. It's just unsightly."

Community covenants, landlord prohibitions and municipal zoning laws began fining those who flew their "flags of poverty" from outdoor clotheslines and drying racks.

"It's social classism, nothing more," said Betsy Cazden, a board member of Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light, a Providence-based nonprofit working to prohibit such restrictions in the breezy Ocean State. "Nice people don't hang clothes outside. Old immigrant ladies do - that's what people think."

Of course, the alternative to outdoor air drying is electric and gas dryers that burn dirty fossil fuels. On an annual basis, electric dryers alone in the United States consume the equivalent of about 30 million tons of coal, according to studies.

Cazden was turned onto the "Right to Dry" movement about two years ago, at the First Baptist Church on North Main Street in Providence, during an Interfaith Power and Light Cool Congregation gathering. These gatherings feature PowerPoint presentations about environmental issues.

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