I doubt whether there’s a man or woman in the City of Philadelphia who hasn’t felt the need to use a public restroom while out on the town. It can happen while shopping, clubbing, or while taking a casual ride on the subway.
But finding a spot “to go” is not easy.
“Restrooms for Customers Only” signs are popular in city bars and restaurants. Of course if you are “gifted” at “May I use your restroom” politicking, then you stand a chance, otherwise you are out of luck and may be forced to consider doing the unspeakable: Going behind a dumpster.
Feeling the urge and finding a place to go may be easier in the neighborhoods, but if you’re in Center City, you may not have time to get to an appropriate spot.
When I was in Paris several years ago (a city that has public restrooms by the way), I was shocked to discover that hundreds of men relieve themselves late at night along the Champs Elysees. The French were oblivious to the sight; even police officers looked the other way. In Philadelphia, behavior like this can net you a one hundred dollar fine.
But honestly, what’s a gentleman or lady to do if there are no public restrooms?
“South Street,” Councilman David Cohen told Philadelphia City Council in 2004, “is the city’s second most visited tourist area—yet there are no public facilities available for all these tourists.”
The situation remains the same in 2010, although there’s no reason why Philadelphia cannot do what almost every European and Canadian city has done: install retractable urinals and toilets that are invisible during the day but quite obvious at night during the peak after bar hours.
It makes sense to me: If you don’t want tourists and urbanites to do “the nasty” in public, then provide public restrooms!
This month The Philadelphia Daily News reported on the lack of public restrooms in the Italian Market area. The paper quoted many restaurant owners who said that they would not allow the public to use their “employee only” restrooms. Exceptions to the rule might include extreme hardship cases, like a mother and child in distress, or that one-in-a-million customer with a good “Please let me use the bathroom” line. Ordinarily Italian Market customers are told to go to the public restrooms at the Capitolo Playground at 9th and Federal. Unfortunately, the Capitolo restrooms are usually closed at night and locked up during the day as a protection from vandals.
Like the homeless situation in Dilworth Plaza, many Philadelphia public restrooms have been closed because of the vagrant problem. It’s not uncommon to hear that once reliable city restrooms in city gas stations or mini-markets have been closed because the owners were tired of having them vandalized. Rather than constantly fix up the destroyed property, the owners opted to simply close them. As a result, everybody suffers.
Finding a public restroom is a little easier in New York City.
New York City has 468 subway stations but among those stations one can find at least 78 subway restrooms open to the public. 78 may not be much compared to what NYC had in 1940 (1,676 public toilets), but it trumps Philadelphia. There are no public restrooms on any of the stops along the Broad Street subway or the Market-Frankford El, minus of course, the new facilities at the Frankford Transportation Center and the terminal at 69th Street. But at the hundreds of small stops in-between, there’s nothing but a waiting platform and a private restroom for employees only.
But nothing is quite as scandalous as Philadelphia on New Year’s Day along the Broad Street concourse during the Mummer’s parade. Because Philadelphia lacks public toilets, hundreds of revelers line up every year the way they do at night in Paris. While the police discourage such behavior, the sheer numbers of law breakers makes handing out tickets impossible.
Under the Rendell administration, the city tried to do install self-cleaning public restrooms in the city but the deal fell through when the city and the manufacturer couldn’t agree on how they were to be funded.
Can a major tourist attraction like Philadelphia afford to wait any longer?
As a City Councilman said in Detroit, “We spend a lot of time and energy promoting our downtown-then when people get here, there’s no place for them to use the bathroom.”
The Chinese have the answer. The city of Beijing installed 7,700 public toilets in city streets because the government there feels that all travelers should find a toilet within an 8-minute walk in the business area.
But there may be good news on the horizon.
After decades of inaction, Philadelphia has finally installed a pilot pay toilet neat City Hall. Complete with a self-cleaning apparatus and piped in music, this large structure is almost too good to be true, as is the cheap 25 cent price of admission.
The only thing that could kill the installation of these gizmos is an invasion of vagrants with quarters.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
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