I Have to Pee!: Public Bathrooms in NYC

Recently Untapped New York discovered this at Bedford Avenue and N.7th in Williamsburg. Looks like something is in the works for 2010!

Bedford Avenue-Coming Soon-Public Toilet-Urination Facility-Public Telephone-NYC

I first became intrigued with public bathrooms upon seeing the reppropriation of the Astor Place women’s room into a newsstand. Then I began to notice larger stand-alone beaux-arts buildings, and began to dig further. Today, the internet is littered with information about how to find bathrooms in New York City–nyrestroom.com, nyctoiletmap.com, restroomratings.com, and the global iPhone app SitorSquat by Charmin. But in real life, restrooms are harder to come by. In NYC as of April 2009, there were 666 park bathrooms, 78 subway bathrooms and the pay-per-use self-cleaning bathrooms in Herald Square. These figures have fallen sharply over the last half-century. In contrast, Singapore, which has a land area nearly 200 sq km less than New York City, has 29,500 public toilets.

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Should the provision of bathrooms be considered a public good? In Italy, cafes and similar establishments are required by law to permit anybody to use the bathroom, regardless of being a customer.  Cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Gent, Belgium all have street-side options. New York City has swung the pendulum on this issue, and the history behind the present situation is typical of New York: long, complicated and wrought with political drama.

bathroomsTop: Public Men’s Bathrooms in Gent, Belgium, Bottom: Public Toilets in Paris, France

bathroomsdelancey

bathroomsbryantparkBryant Park Bathrooms: Voted Best Bathrooms in the Nation by Citysearch

As the economy struggled in the 1970s, crime and vandalism increased in the subway system, and the majority of the bathrooms were closed to the public. In 1975, pay toilets were outlawed in response to the charge that they discriminated against women. Women always needed a stall, while men could relieve themselves anywhere, opponents argued. Other opposition included claims of discrimination against the disabled or that public restrooms would attract child molesters, vagrants and drug-dealers.

Mayors David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have all attempted to address the dearth of toilets, which the New York Times has termed “among life’s eternal mysteries.” Plans during Mayor Guiliani’s term were scrapped for fear of contract monopolies, and then later, although money was budgeted by the city council for toilets, the administration never acted upon it. Mayor Bloomberg finally signed a deal with Cemusa to install public pay-per-use toilets and new street “furniture”–you’ve probably noticed the new fancy bus shelters and newspaper stands.

Unfortunately, the pay-per-use self-cleaning toilets at Herald Square were not popular or cost-efficient, with focus groups reporting that users had a “profound mistrust of automation in the toilet sphere.” They have been replaced with manually cleaned toilets that nonetheless still look “space-age.” My hunch is that New Yorkers just like to be scrappy or in-the-know, like this Yelp user’s rating of best bathrooms in NYC ranging from Pottery Barn to the W Hotel. Or think about Seinfeld’s George Constanza who bragged “Anywhere in the city–I’ll tell you the best public toilet.”

bathroomsheraldsquareHerald Square Public Toilets

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich  and the photographer at  http://christofferdelsinger.wordpress.com/

 guiliani, herald square, manhattan, public, toilet, urban planning

29 Responses
  1. Back just before 1999 improvements to City Hall Park a public pay for use bathroom was out on the corner of Chambers St. on the northeast corner. It was removed and never replaced as the design of the upgrade to the park was done. I worked on the archaeology of the park a number of times, once in the “first Almshouse cemetery” there in 1999 and I thought at least they would replace it somehow. Instead there are disappearing granite bollards to control traffic and I suspect to stop what was thought a terrorist threat. I don’t see how a bathroom needs to be removed for that reason however.

  2. Old Skool Reply

    Thank god and chain stores. Starbucks, Barnes & Nobles and Mickey D’s among other provide public pissoires for those of us who are bladderly challenged.

    • How should one read this code? For example 403.1 category 2 seems to say that banks should provide restrooms for the public. Is that correct? Why is it then that no bank in NYC seems to provide a public restroom. Was some exemption passed at some point?

      • Michelle Young Reply

        That part of the code seems to just refer to minimum fixtures, not necessarily for public use. There is separate section of the code for public bathrooms.

      • I’m used to use banks restrooms here in Brasil. Are aways clean and free. xD

  3. Hey, It’s nice to stumble upon a good site like this one. Do you care if I used some of your info, and I’ll put a link back to your blog?

  4. This is just the sort of thing that I find fascinating. Thank you – I grew up in NYC and never knew about these places.

    • Michelle Young Reply

      thanks for the feedback and kind words! if you have any favorite spots, please send them along, always looking for more material!

  5. I would like to know more information about the public bathroom at Allen Street and Delancey in New York City. Was it built during the 1800s? or is it more recent? Was it used by the immigrants who lived in nearby tenement buildings without bathrooms?

    • Michelle Young Reply

      The first plan to build the public bathroom (known then as a comfort station) at Allen & Delancey was put forth in 1902 by W.W. Weeks, NYC Superintendent Public Baths and Comfort Stations. This bathroom (along with plans for bathrooms at 109th st and 2nd Ave & 41st St and 6th Ave, were in response to the poor conditions of the Rivington Street bath. The Rivington Street bath had 67 showers and 10 tubs, which was deemed inadequate to satisfy the supply. There is no direct mention of exactly who the clientele were but you can infer from the comment in the report: “From the plan and materials used it seems to be sufficient consideration was not given the fact that this comfort station would be used by a very different class of people from those using the same in private houses and institutions.” In addition, it was acknowledged in the same report that “If the best possible locations were given the free floating baths, even to the inconvenience of some lesser interest, they would be one of the most healthful and useful charities in the City.” The current building has been part of the NYC owned park property called “Allen Malls” since 1929, and legally acquired the property through condemnation in 1930. Hope that helps!
      http://books.google.com/books?id=mQyqZEHcq7AC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false
      http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_your_park/historical_signs/hs_historical_sign.php?id=8249

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