New York City lawmakers have proposed a tiny trickle of legislation they say will eventually lead to a roaring river of ecstatic relief.
I’m talking of course about Intro. 258, a bill sponsored by Brooklyn Councilmember Rita Joseph that would require the Department of Transportation and the Parks Department to issue a report identifying a location for at least one new public restroom in every single one of New York City’s 214 zip codes. That report would be due in roughly one year, on June 1, 2023. (The Empire State Building was constructed in one year and 45 days.)
Currently, New York has roughly 1,400 municipal public bathrooms, around one for every 6,000 residents; some zip codes like 10032, in Upper Manhattan, have none.
"As a former teacher, I know: You gotta go, gotta go, gotta go, gotta go, gotta go, but there’s never a place to go in New York, so we’re gonna change that," Joseph told a crowd outside of City Hall on Tuesday afternoon.
Every single speaker at the press conference, which included Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Brooklyn Councilmember Ari Kagan, and the creator of the essential public bathroom resource @got2gonyc, Teddy Siegel, stressed that our lack of public bathrooms cuts against the values that New Yorkers stand for. Pregnant and menstruating people should not have to buy a food item to use a restroom, homeless residents should be able to relieve themselves in peace, and street vendors should not be locked out of public restrooms in commercial establishments.
"I understand that as a cis, white, straight woman, my appearance gives me an inherent privilege. I can walk into most hotels and use their lobby bathrooms without question," Siegel noted. "This is not the case for a majority of New Yorkers."
If the need is so dire, and the belief in public restrooms universal, why not sponsor a bill to order the city to actually build toilets, instead of study where they could be located in some far-off future? Joseph said that actually installing them will require its own bill, as well as a budget appropriation.
"We continually hear from agencies that these installations are not feasible because of either water or sewage access or other considerations," said Levine, a former councilmember who has pushed for public restrooms in the past. "This bill will force them to put on the table at least once feasible location in every zip code."
When it comes to elements of human dignity, "feasibility" often has less to do with infrastructure and more to do with politics. In 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a deal with JCDecaux to place 20 self-cleaning restroom kiosks across the five boroughs. Only five have been installed, and the company recently blamed NIMBYs on community boards for the outrageously slow roll-out. Two more are supposed to touch down in Red Hook and Williamsburg, according to the CITY, but no other details are available. (The company has not answered Hell Gate’s request for comment.)
At a subsequent hearing on Intro. 258 on Tuesday afternoon (two other pieces of public space legislation were also discussed), members of the Adams administration professed to support the addition of more public restrooms, but again cited problems of "feasibility" and NIMBYism when asked about the JCDecaux toilets, and suggested they were issues confined to the previous administration.
"Those are not excuses that I am going to ever be using," DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez testified.
Queens Councilmember Selvena Brooks-Powers asked the Parks Department's chief of policy and long-range planning, Sarah Neilson, about the $3 to $5 million it costs them to install public bathrooms: "Why have these costs ballooned out of control and what is the department doing to address this?"
Neilson punted. "We're very eager to, you know, find ways to provide more restroom access for New Yorkers across the city. I don't have the specifics on the examples that you gave as far as the cost of providing new comfort stations."
Levine suggested that the restrooms could pay for themselves through advertising, which hasn’t worked out that well for similar on-street kiosks, but acknowledged that more bathrooms means more city workers to keep them clean: "Part of having a dignified infrastructure of public bathrooms is fully funding the staffing to clean."
Before I left City Hall, I used the public restroom outside of the main council chambers on the second floor. The marble was clean, the air smelled of sweet nothingness, and the wood paneling made me feel like an extra in some network courtroom procedural, a sexy rogue attorney at the end of his rope who just needs to splash some water on his face before he faces the music.
It was fantastic. All New Yorkers deserve to use public restrooms that are just as nice as the ones their public officials pee in.