When we approached a man exiting the Tompkins Square Park bathroom on Sunday afternoon, he did not mince words about the experience.
"It's a shithouse. A straight-up cesspool," said the man, who sported an eye patch and a J.Crew baseball cap. "The toilets are overflowing, the sinks are overflowing, people leave needles all over the place. It's negativity, man."
The gentleman refused to give us any part of his name ("I'd have to kill you," he said with a smile) but noted that he'd been living around the park since 1980, "and this bathroom has always been terrible."
"Life is about improvement, development, and growth," said the man, gesturing at the restrooms. "But this thing here, it's not making no progress. After 40 years, it's not making any progress."
On their best days, the restrooms in Tompkins are a place to hold your breath and quickly and uneventfully relieve yourself. On their worst, the raw humanity ages you in an instant, and you leave a little different than you came in.
"These are the worst bathrooms in North America, or at least on the East Coast," a man named Vlad told us. "A port-a-potty on a construction site beats a good day in there. Crackheads, shooting up in their dicks," Vlad said, moments before a member of his crew politely suggested that we "fuck off."
A comptroller's report released in 2019 backs up these assertions: Chinatown and the Lower East Side had the highest percentage of "unacceptable" Parks comfort stations in the city.
"It wasn't good. Two of the stalls didn't have doors. And the stall that had a door, wasn't even a full door, and the lock didn't work," said Grace Grigg, a student at Parsons who was exiting on the other side. "But I'm kind of expecting it to be like that," Grigg added, displaying the kind of grim utilitarianism necessary to navigate the city's public restrooms. "I needed it, I used it."
Rent has gone up considerably around Tompkins in recent years, but the park remains a woolly, wonderful, rat-infested monument to the idea that New York City is for everybody. Unlike many of New York's most popular public spaces, the park does not have a well-staffed private conservancy with a multimillion-dollar budget.
In his first few months in office, Mayor Eric Adams has also continued the practice of his predecessors stretching back decades, repeatedly sweeping New Yorkers from encampments in Tompkins and on a nearby stretch of 9th Street known as "anarchy row."
A Parks worker we spoke to at Tompkins acknowledged that the "horrible" bathrooms were being heavily used by park residents, but said their general state of decrepitude—broken sinks and toilets, cracked doors and windows—did not help the situation.
"We clean them every day. But there's not much we can maintain, as you can see," the worker said. "That's the thing I've been asking: Why doesn't the City fix them?"
According to the Parks Department, the Tompkins Square Park bathrooms are going to be completely renovated. Construction is expected to begin in early 2023.
"We take the cleanliness and safety of our comfort stations very seriously. The facilities at Tompkins Square Park are cleaned several times a day by Parks staff," Parks spokesperson Megan Moriarty wrote Hell Gate in an email.
Tompkins actually has two sets of restrooms: the ones that face south, and the ones that face north, that are generally open during summer hours, when the pool is open (yes, Tompkins has a pool). However, during our visit, the north-facing bathrooms were closed, and so was the pool. "Come back in a few hours," a worker told us.
When we caught up with Harry Lichtenstein, he was having an enviably productive Sunday. He had just finished up his duties at El Jardin del Paraiso, a community garden between Avenues B and C, had a brand new juicer strapped to his bike ("I do a lot of juicing"), and was making a quick pit stop in the Tompkins bathrooms before he biked home to the Bronx.
"There's no soap in there," Lichtenstein said dryly. (Indeed, there was no soap, but the XLERATOR hand dryer was functioning just fine.) After giving us several incredible tips on where we could find mind-blowingly excellent public bathrooms around town, Lichtenstein ended on a note of positivity about one of the City's gnarliest comfort centers: "It can only get better."