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Urine-Nation: History of Public Restrooms

Helping New Yorker's in navigating the city's public and private restrooms.

Notable Events in New York Restroom History

 

  • Bathrooms were required in every subway station in 1940. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's administration insured that all 1,676 toilets in the stations were inspected weekly. Many mark the austerity measures of the 1970's as the downfall of clean and available subway station restrooms.
  • In 2008, Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to install Automated Public Toilets throughout New York. 20 of these toilets were procured for the pilot project. For a quarter, you can use the APT's 15 minutes, complete with amenities including a panic button and service button, all while being handicap accessible. After the 15 minutes has expired, the APT sprayed itself down for the next user. Due to concerns about the modernist design of the APT's and other practical concerns (sidewalk space, sewer access, and other zoning regulations), only 6 of the 20 toilets have been installed in New York. These six can be found below, while the remaining 14 APT's are languishing in a warehouse in Maspeth, Queens:
    • Bronx:
      • East Fordham Road and Third Ave.
    • Brooklyn:
      • Grand Army Plaza
      • Tillary Street at Cadman Plaza
    • Manhattan:
      • Madison Square Park
      • Plaza de las Americas, Washington Heights
    • Queens:
      • Corona Plaza

Historical Overview

Though European cities began offering public restrooms in the mid-nineteenth century, New York City never seemed to adopt the public sanitary trend. While New York citizens have been concerned with the public health crisis caused by a lack of public restrooms, NIMBY-ism from residents, landlords, and developers strikes after planning committees chose public restroom sites. This tension has been documented since at least 1895, when citizen committees formed after Tammany Hall investigations became flooded with requests for more public restrooms.

City sanitation officials have been following research on public health for over a century, attending the 43rd American Public Health Association Conference in September 1915. MIT Public Health scientist William Sedgwick addressed a crowd that included New York Governor Charles Whitman with the following admonishment, “Probably the most flagrant failure in American sanitation today is the almost universal lack of public convenience or comfort stations in American cities and towns. Failure like this to provide proper public toilet facilities is to fail in one of the very elements of sound public health.” (“News of the societies”, 1915)

Despite these long-standing concerns and education efforts, New York still has yet to build enough public restrooms to meet the needs of city residents or tourists. Some articles below provide interesting snapshots into historical efforts to provide more public restrooms in New York.