New York City officials are working to increase the number of public restrooms: NPR


People line up to use public restrooms in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan on June 28.

Austin Cope/NPR

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Austin Cope/NPR

People line up to use public restrooms in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan on June 28.

Austin Cope/NPR

New Yorkers are known to be always on the move. But finding a place to go is not easy.

Patricia Kennedy saw this firsthand during her recent weeklong visit to New York from Orlando, Florida. She was walking into the World Trade Center subway station when a smell hit her.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my god,'” she says. “And it wasn’t urine.”

It was human feces. And she is sure that she was not mistaken.

“We have a pet, and he certainly didn’t smell like dog[‘s] or look like a dog[‘s]– it was human,” she says. ” It was disgusting.

Kennedy, 40, who works in the financial industry and was visiting New York hoping to move for a job, says her experience at the subway station didn’t affect her desire to move to the city. But since she had never seen anything like this in Florida, it made her think about what she would have to tolerate if she moved.

“[I]Is it what we have to deal with on a regular basis, like smelly subways or human excrement? she wondered.

Although New York City has the largest population in the country, it has about 1,400 public restrooms, according to a 2019 city report. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said Tuesday during a a rally and press conference on the steps of New York City Hall advocating for more TOILETS.

“This number, compared to a city of eight and a half million [people]it’s ridiculous,” he said.

Levine is part of a group of local elected officials who hope to improve public access to restrooms. A City Council bill that would propose locations for new public restrooms in each of the city’s more than 150 ZIP codes held its first committee hearing on Tuesday. Advocates see access to public toilets as a basic human right, especially for the city’s estimated 50,000 residents who experience homelessness.

New York has a ratio of just 16 toilets per 100,000 for its 8.5 million residents

According to the city report, New York ranks 93rd in the United States for its ratio of public restrooms per capita, with just 16 restrooms per 100,000 residents. Topping the list are St. Paul, Minnesota, with 210 restrooms per 100,000 people and Jacksonville, Florida, with 140. The report also finds that public restrooms in New York City are in disrepair, unsafe, and inequitably distributed across the city. .

The pandemic highlighted the city’s shortage of restrooms as many restaurants and businesses closed during lockdowns in 2020. The city’s subway system also closed restrooms in all of its more than 450 stations, and they haven’t reopened since.

“During the pandemic, you couldn’t find a bathroom anywhere,” said Rita Joseph, city council member and lead sponsor of the bill. She said having more toilets is good for people visiting the city and for residents going about their daily lives.

“New York is a city on the move. We have elderly people on the move, we have pregnant women, we have neighbors, we have moms, we have dads. When I go out with my 11-year-old son and he has to go to the toilet, we have to find a location,” she said.

People without access to toilets were forced to urinate or defecate in the street

For Bronx resident Nicky Smith, the city’s poor ranking wasn’t surprising. Smith generally found it easier to find public restrooms in Manhattan than in the Bronx, and says public restrooms in the city are often filthy.

“It’s definitely something New York should invest in,” says Smith, 28, who isn’t binary.

Smith said they also noticed the low number of public restrooms through their work as a health outreach officer for homeless people. When many city toilets closed after the pandemic began, they often had to convince private companies to allow homeless people to use their toilets. They also saw people without access to toilets forced to urinate or defecate in the street.

“At the end of the day, it’s a public health issue, as well as a political issue,” Smith said.

A previous effort to put in a new toilet also…stalled. A 2006 deal to build 20 toilets across the city resulted in just five being built, while the other 15 remain in storage. The mayor’s office and contractors blamed the slow rollout on the COVID-19 pandemic, difficulties finding locations and accessing utilities, and some neighborhood opposition. But years later, the effort remains stalled.

Even the current proposal might take some time to evolve. If passed by city council and signed by the mayor, the legislation will only lead to the creation of a report – with input from the public and neighborhood officials – that identifies possible locations for new toilets. It does not fund staffing or building toilets – those would require separate council votes, officials explained at the rally.

Brooklyn resident Ed Graban says that in the 19 years he’s lived in the city, he’s learned how to find a restroom when he needs one. But for people who are new to the city or don’t have regular access to it, he says it would be more difficult. The challenge, he says, is to ensure that bathroom users are not uncomfortable or unsafe entering when people use them to wash or shave.

“They have to find a way to make them safer,” says Graban, 50, adding that the city should also take steps to improve people’s access to housing.

Other townspeople echo Graban’s concerns, fearing more public toilets aren’t clean or people are using them as shelter.

Samantha Teruel, 35, who lives in Manhattan, says she often avoids public restrooms.

“I’m always worried they’ll be dirty,” she says, explaining that she usually uses restrooms at other companies’ restaurants instead. But having more security and regular cleaning could help, she says.

“The truth is that it is the community that must take care of them.”

Local officials supporting the bill admit that access to toilets overlaps with other deeper issues in the city – such as housing – but Levine told the rally that more bathrooms could only help, and the study was the first step.

“It will give these New Yorkers the dignity of a place to go,” Levine said. “And that’s a win for everyone.”


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