By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Luther Campbell
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As laundromats go, My Dream Coin Laundry is spectacular. Row after row of shiny front-loading washing machines hum along to reggae tunes on the sound system. The white tile floor is spotless; dryers along the walls work for free. Men and women fold clothes in air-conditioned comfort while kids skip around laundry carts or play with toys or candy scored from vending machines. Behind a counter, hanging from two carousels, are racks of plastic-wrapped dry cleaning and a selection of shorts and T-shirts for sale ("Everything $1," a sign announces).
It's a 10,000-square-foot dream come true for its owner Mohamed Ibrahim, who opened the laundromat this past May as the centerpiece of his I Have a Dream strip center on NE 79th Street near Second Avenue. The half-blocklong mall, constructed on a lot where the Temple of Love Motel used to stand, is a spot of newness in this run-down but bustling part of the Miami neighborhood known as Little River, where drug dealers and prostitutes haunt alleys and lots between hardware, TV-repair, and secondhand shops.
The 35-year-old Ibrahim is an Egyptian who says he has lived in the United States most of his life and who named his shopping center after Martin Luther King's famous declaration out of reverence for his cause. "I am a black man," he proudly proclaims, perhaps referring to his roots in Africa, but surely not to the color of his skin. He likes to talk about the uplifting effect his clean new commercial venture is sure to have on the area. "I'm giving something to the community," he announces with a wide-eyed, earnest expression. "I love this neighborhood."
Tall and lithe, balding at the crown, Ibrahim is wearing jeans and a red polo shirt that says "How can I help you?" over the front pocket. "Look," he boasts, striding through the laundromat and gesturing toward his customers. "Black, Hispanic, white -- you see everyone in here. You wouldn't believe how many people come up to me and thank me for saving them money."
With free dryers and 50-cent washers, My Dream has not only saved its clientele money, it's also inevitably wooed much of that clientele from competing laundromats in the area. Sure, the owners of those laundromats are upset, a fact Ibrahim says he sincerely regrets. "They are welcome to offer the same kind of service we do," he says, shrugging, palms upturned.
Rival laundromat operators, however, are only a minuscule contingent in the growing ranks of Ibrahim's enemies, and the really dirty laundry isn't sloshing around in My Dream's new double-load washers. Perhaps the only outward hint that things aren't perfect in Dream-land are the two closed shops down the mall: the Capri travel agency and Just a Weave hair salon, the latter also owned by Ibrahim. His brother Ahmed, commonly called David, operates the Three Brothers convenience market next door to the laundromat, but the two other sites will remain vacant unless a heated legal dispute is resolved in Ibrahim's favor.
He's in the middle of an astoundingly deep morass of business deals gone bust, most of them related in some way to I Have a Dream, all disastrous for everyone except the many lawyers involved. It took Ibrahim nearly eighteen months of legal wrangling just to open the laundromat. And while the place now runs like a dream, the coin laundry is currently in bankruptcy proceedings (Ibrahim recently made the surprise announcement that a group of investors now owns the laundry). His shopping center is in foreclosure too; and Ibrahim is the target of several lawsuits seeking, among other things, to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars for contractors who built his shopping center and investors who financed it.
Other local projects Ibrahim is, or has been, involved in also have become similar legal and financial black holes. Over the past several years, he has used a bewildering variety of tactics to make and break deals, borrow and lose money, and somehow remain almost untouched, either by angry creditors or criminal prosecutors. He says he's a millionaire, yet he's declared corporate bankruptcy at least four times in less than a decade; both he and his wife have also filed for personal bankruptcy. For months he did not pay his trash pickup or former equipment-leasing companies, but eight weeks ago he came up with almost $400,000 cash to buy 64 new washing machines, and he says he's closing on the purchase of two more laundromats.
True, Ibrahim was charged earlier this year with passing about $8000 in worthless checks; his former probation officer says he has since made restitution. But that's nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that everyone from minimum-wage handymen to well-heeled investors claims he owes.
"I've got three bounced checks [from Ibrahim] for $5000 each sitting on my desk right now," says one man in the laundry business (not a competitor), who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He is a human nightmare. Nobody knows where his money comes from, and nobody knows how he gets away with everything."
Even experienced litigation attorneys are impressed by Ibrahim's ability to thrive amid financial chaos. "That scumbag has more gall than any one individual I've seen in a while," says Philip Vova, one of many lawyers pursuing legal action of one kind or another against Ibrahim. "I know every sharpie in town, and this one is pretty good."