Give Us Public Toilets

We all have to pee. Yet New York City and cities around the country are suffering a massive shortage of public toilets. The situation could easily change today with a new commitment to provide bathrooms for all.

This isn’t a controversial issue: New Yorkers want more public bathrooms. (Tanja-Tiziana / Doublecrossed Photography via Getty Images)

On New Year’s Eve 2021, I had, like many other New Yorkers, imbibed a bit. So when I awoke in the new year and took off for a trip to the Bronx, I quickly realized that the previous year wasn’t quite finished with me yet. I needed a bathroom, and quick. I frantically searched for an open bathroom in the wee hours of the morning. Struggling through the quiet streets, I slowly accepted my grim fate: I was going to have to crouch between cars or trash cans, come what may.

Then I saw it. Gleaming on top of the hill in the center of Claremont Park, its door open, projecting warm light into the morning mist. The open comfort station beckoned to me. Thanks to the union worker who arose earlier than me that morning, I was spared the humiliation of relieving myself in front of the entire world on the street, instead preserving a slice of dignity in a public toilet.

Countless New Yorkers and tourists face panicked searches for public bathrooms every day. In a city of 8.3 million residents and over 56 million annual visitors, the city’s current stock of 1,103 public bathrooms is paltry. Given how universal the need for relief is, the New York media periodically focuses on this lack of public bathrooms, sparking occasional action from city agencies and the city council. The third season of How To with John Wilson features an episode entitled “How to Find a Public Restroom”; Instagram pages such as Got2GoNYC and NewYorkNico have focused attention on public bathrooms, the former posting reels to point needy New Yorkers toward publicly accessible (but mostly privately owned and operated) bathrooms, the latter developing a film featured at Tribeca Film Festival following a character trying desperately to find a working bathroom while walking the streets of the city.

Perhaps in response to this growing clamor, in October 2022, the New York City Council adopted a new charter rule requiring city agencies to identify at least one location in each zip code suitable for installation of a public bathroom. It’s a step in the right direction, but one public bathroom per zip code falls far short of meeting the basic needs of the city’s residents and visitors.

This isn’t a controversial issue: New Yorkers want more public bathrooms. That popularity is nothing new. Nineteenth-century Progressives fought for a wide expansion of public services for New Yorkers including bathrooms, leading to the construction of hundreds of public bathrooms all over the city — many of which can still be seen today, either for their original intended use, repurposed, or, all too often, abandoned.

The fight for a dignified space to carry out the most basic of human functions was popular when Victorian-era Progressives took it on. Democratic socialist politicians and progressives should take up the public bathroom problem again.

Nineteenth-century American cities were a dizzying mix of scents, sights, and smells. Living in cramped and unventilated tenement buildings, working-class New Yorkers packed streets and sidewalks, competing for space with trolleys, bicycles, horse carts, children’s games, vendors, and the occasional car. The streetscape was chaotic, a reflection of the housing and working conditions of the city.

They were also the site of constant pissing. As Peter C. Baldwin explains in “Public Privacy: Restrooms in American Cities, 1869–1932,” “Urinating men, like defecating horses, were an everyday sight on the street.”

Some middle-class women, leaving the private sphere of the household and entering the public sphere of the street, took interest in ordering the chaotic scene. Women’s organizations advocated for trash bins and beautification of sidewalks to make commercial corridors more welcoming to female shoppers. Housing reformers and new social workers focused on housing policy, hoping to alleviate the dark and cramped conditions in which the other half lived. Others turned to the issue of the public urinators, an indecent sight for the middle-class women and an impossible option for the lower-class women who were shamed for attempting to do as their male counterparts did.

While housing laws only mandated one privy per one hundred tenants (a literal hole in the ground in the backyard of the building), the sanitary option available to the men of the time was only slightly less indecent to the crusading ladies of reform: the saloon. Tempting men in with an inviting atmosphere, a complimentary lunch spread, and a working bathroom, the saloon was not a sufficient solution to the moderation-minded middle-class women of the era. This moral sensibility, tied with the Progressive Era expectation of government intervention to allow for basic human dignities, helped propel public bathrooms as a popular and successful issue for reformers.

As early as 1838, the question of public sanitation facilities was an issue in political discourse both in New York City and across the United States. Members of the public called for public baths in Milwaukee, New York, and Philadelphia, and some private charitable groups, such as the People’s Bathing and Washing Association in New York City, attempted to open baths in cooperation with municipal governments. Gradually, city agencies took on the task. By 1869, the Metropolitan Board of Health, a newly formed agency in New York, constructed the first public bathroom at Astor Place in Manhattan and, by 1880, operated twenty-two public urinals.

Even though women were deeply involved in the push to have them constructed, women’s stalls were largely left out of these public projects. Private facilities such as department stores, train stations, and libraries took notice and constructed ornate separate spaces for middle-class women, complete with draperies, couches for napping, desks for letter-writing, and most important, private bathroom stalls.

A newsboy hands a newspaper to a man in a restroom in the Duane Street Lodging House, 9 Duane Street, New York City, circa 1905. (Museum of the City of New York / Getty Images)

Accommodations for working-class women were more basic. In 1887, in order to curb sexual harassment at work, New York amended its factory law to require separate bathrooms specifically for women. Mass transit companies that served the working class offered bathrooms with less esteem than their luxury railway counterparts. Small, poorly attended bathrooms were installed at subway and elevated line stops across New York City, with eight hundred in Manhattan alone in 1919.

In 1897, following a scathing report by the Committee on Public Bath, Water Closets, and Urinals convened by Mayor William L. Strong calling the lack of public bathrooms “a disgrace to the city and to the civilization of the nineteenth century,” the city constructed its first comfort station and gradually expanded its stock, totaling eight in Manhattan and six in Brooklyn by 1905. This trend took off around the United States. By 1919, nearly one hundred cities, including Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, and Schenectady, offered comfort stations, placing them in prominent places to serve people from all walks of life.

As author Frederic C. Howe explained in his 1905 reform tract The City: The Hope of Democracy, “Cities are constantly adding to their burdens and rapidly enlarging their functions in response to the needs of the public and the dangers of unrestrained individualism.” Public ownership of bathrooms was not seen as an overreach but the duty of the government to provide for public welfare.

But the widespread support and agitation for public bathrooms and other related public measures did not last. After the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, many middle-class women reformers lost interest in campaigns for change and returned to their private-sphere lives. While, before the Great War, many business magnates were tarred as cruel and unjustly rich, the media celebrated them as they contributed to the war effort. Red Scares resulting from the Russian Revolution led to silencing of radicals via the Espionage and Sedition Acts, opening politicians, labor leaders, and ordinary citizens to punishment for promoting redistributive or economically progressive policies.

Public spending on New York City bathrooms retreated and did not pick up again until the time of Robert Moses, from the mid-1930s to 1960. Under his watch as commissioner, the Parks Department greatly expanded, and many new projects included public comfort stations. Maintenance for these and other public bathrooms, however, quickly fell off as a priority amid New York’s financial crisis. Lacking any meaningful organized public or political power to preserve public services, the budget cuts of this era were decisive in ending the past era’s mission of government providing essential services to make for a decent life.

Robert Moses was arguably the most powerful person in New York City government from the 1930s to the 1950s. (C. M. Stieglitz / Library of Congress)

The abandonment of the public sphere was endemic across urban centers, the result of widespread deferred maintenance, planned shrinkage, and generalized austerity in response to decreased tax bases after suburban flight. Coupled with a changed public perception of cities with thoughts of congestion, dirtiness, and crime, public bathrooms engendered fears of muggings or the chance to encounter homosexual activity.

City police departments dedicated considerable resources to catching gay men in the act in public bathrooms. In New York City, many men arrested in the 1960s claimed they were pursued by “handsome, aggressively flirtatious, and provocatively dressed undercover officers” and were arrested even when the suspects had suggested they move their encounter to a private space.

The urban fiscal crisis of the 1970s dealt the final blow to most public bathrooms. Massive layoffs of nearly one hundred thousand municipal workers between 1975 and 1978, wage freezes for all remaining public sector employees, and a reduction of the city’s capital budget to the tune of $600 million led to the adoption of a deferred maintenance strategy by city agencies. In 1972, New York City had 708 subway bathrooms. That number was slashed to 175 in the early 1980s and decreased to roughly half that in the early 1990s. The Parks Department fared no better, with mass closures of facilities instead of funding the extensive repairs and maintenance costs that public bathrooms incurred.

The city’s response to these budget shortfalls and deferred maintenance backlogs was to begin contracting out maintenance through the form of public-private partnerships, where the public realm is managed and in some cases owned by private corporations, thus preserving public goods in a diminished form while reducing the budgetary burden for the city. By the 1980s, Central Park, Prospect Park, Madison Square, Union Square, and Bryant Park were all under the care of hybrid public-private organizations.

Jean-Francois Decaux, CEO of JC Decaux, stands with his company’s automatic accessible public toilet and kiosk newsstand in midtown Manhattan, 1993. (MARK PHILLIPS/AFP via Getty Images)

This handing off of the public sphere continued as New York City emerged from the financial crisis in the forms of conservancies, business improvement districts, and privately owned public spaces (POPS). Through floor-area-ratio (FAR) bonuses, 70 percent of developers between 1961 to 1975 offered some sort of public amenity in exchange for variances to height or bulk zoning codes. A 1978 study of these FAR bonus projects by J. Kayden revealed that for every dollar spent on public amenities, developers generated $48 in additional profit. A 2009 study of POPS by Jeremey Németh pointed out that “the privatisation of space signals the erosion of the public realm and the destruction of truly democratic expression.”

Similar to in the nineteenth century, public-private spaces function more as dividers of class and status than as truly public spaces for all New Yorkers to enjoy, akin to the “public” department store bathroom versus the truly public comfort station.

For those looking for a public bathroom in New York City today, finding a reliably open, accessible, and clean accommodation is challenging. Along the MTA’s various lines and stations, riders are more likely to find locked and repurposed bathrooms, their signs covered or doors hidden behind large metal bars. One of the most reliable and utilized bathrooms in the subway system, at Times Square, is the result of a POPS bonus, provided and maintained by the Boston Group, which offers the service in exchange for a FAR bonus on their building above the site.

Current inventories of public bathrooms in New York City never fail to mention POPS bathrooms and other privately owned options, as they are essential to the current stock of 1,103 public bathrooms. Other inventories, such as one developed and shared among rideshare drivers, include private businesses that have granted public access to drivers. Instagram pages offer New Yorkers codes to private bathrooms, and one app claiming to be “the Uber for public bathrooms” matches desperate seekers with private businesses that will allow access for a fee.

But a serious and universal public need is still not being met in the nation’s largest city, to say nothing of the rest of the country. The ubiquitous interest in public bathrooms is an opportunity for leftists, especially the crop that has won elected office at the local, state, and federal levels in recent years, to champion a broadly popular issue. The lack of public bathrooms is a limitation on many people’s ability to participate in civic life.

While developers gain massive profits and bonuses of all kinds to build more, our politicians should demand assurance of serviceable public bathrooms, cleaned regularly by union workers. Train stations, parks, libraries, and other public spaces were designed and built in a time when public bathrooms were considered a worthwhile public investment. It’s time our politicians fund them fully to renovate shuttered facilities, install new ones, and staff these bathrooms with cleaners, attendants, and maintenance employees. No longer should we give such outweighed benefits to developers for their measly “public” facilities. FAR bonuses should only be granted for developments with prominent public bathrooms that are fully staffed and open to everyone unconditionally.

No one deserves the inhumanity of being forced to squat between parked cars or behind trees on public streets. Whether in the subway, in the park, or on new private developments, we can guarantee public bathroom access to every resident and visitor in New York City — and in every city in the United States.