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Porcelain New York

Guerrilla Toilets Flourish at the Base of the Brooklyn Bridge

While NYC continues to delay its public toilet rollout, "Uncle John" steps up to fill the void.

5:19 PM EST on December 5, 2022

A man places a dollar bill into a trash can-turned-tip jar before using one of the port-a-potties at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.

A grateful member of the public tosses a buck in the pee jar. (Hell Gate)

For years, the sliver of parkland on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge has been a bustling mix of cops and white-collar city workers trying to get lunch, cyclists trying to get downtown, and throngs of tourists trying to get on the Great Bridge. But in the last few days, the space has seen the arrival of a new, most welcome amenity.

Specifically, four port-a-potties.

"You can pay whatever you think is fair," a bearded man in a high-viz vest told a tourist who was dropping a buck into a trash can-turned-tip jar with the words "Toilets for the Public / Please Pay It FORWARD" on the side. The man was quick to note that if he couldn't pay, he could use the toilet anyway.

On December 3, Gothamist/WNYC's Gwynne Hogan published a story on these bootleg toilets, which apparently did not have the proper permits to operate. The Parks Department said they asked the owner, Uncle John, to remove them. 

On Monday, the toilets were still there, and lots of people were using them.

"We're providing a service," said the bearded man, who was wearing a BMW hood ornament necklace. He estimated that over his 11-hour shift, many hundreds of people used the port-a-potties. Tens of thousands cross the Brooklyn Bridge on foot every day. "Look at that crowd," he told Hell Gate, pointing a finger adorned with a skull ring towards the mouth of the bridge. "You're gonna have to go three times walking in that crowd—before, during, and after you're off the bridge!" 

The crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge on Monday, December 5. (Hell Gate)

The bearded attendant didn't have much time to speak with us, and declined to give us his name. After someone used a toilet, he dashed in to clean it, then directed other eager members of the public inside, joking and giving them directions. ("Hey, you've got beautiful eyes," he told this reporter. "I've got bloodshot hazel.")

Another man wearing a bright orange Uncle John hat who said his name was Judah approached and said he was on the phone with the Parks Department that very moment. "It goes back and forth," Judah said, when we asked what the status of their permits are. "We're not even breaking even doing this. We're still in the red." (The Parks Department has not yet responded to our request for comment.)

We told Judah that we wrote a column on public restrooms in New York, and that we wanted to review his port-a-potties. "They're not totally finished," he apologized. "We're testing out what is needed. We intend on opening a lot of locations." 

This Uncle John was easily one of the best portable toilets we have ever used. This was fancy-upstate-farm-wedding quality: spotless. 

GLEAMING. (Hell Gate)
A nice touch. (Hell Gate)

As the City continues to spend years in public toilet purgatory, it's only natural that an eager entrepreneur would step up to fill the void.

"A lot of those vendors aren't licensed," Judah said, nodding at the tables of T-shirt sellers and water bottle hawkers on the walkway to the bridge. "Worst comes to worst, we can always move them across the street."

People line up for the Uncle John experience. (Hell Gate)

"This was very much appreciated," said Elly Foy, who was visiting with her family from Liverpool, and stopped to use the restroom before making the journey across the bridge.

"Oh no," the bearded man said under his breath, when three NYPD brass walked past the toilets, including the NYPD's Intelligence Chief, Thomas Galati

"This is a great idea," one of the cops said, before the group continued back to police headquarters across the street. 

"OK," the bearded man exhaled and turned to his colleague. "I'm going to get a bite to eat." 

Porcelain New York Rating for Uncle Johns at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge: 7.0

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