The Local Lens
• Wed, Nov 05, 2014
By Thom Nickels
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.
When you have to go, you have to go.
But finding a spot "to go" is not easy, especially when "Restrooms for Customers Only" signs seem to be everywhere and "going" in public can be a risky endeavor.
When I was in college, I remember how scandalized my parents were when one of my cousins, then at an Ivy League university on a scholarship, found himself in some trouble while in Center City with friends. Apparently they’d been bar hopping on a Friday night when nature called. Walking down a deserted street very late at night, this relative of mine decided to sneak a leak in a remote back alley where a number of dumpsters acted as a barrier between him and the sidewalk. Unfortunately, what he thought was a safe space instantly proved to be in the eye of a nearby policeman who had been surveying the desolate scene from inside a squad car with its lights out.
My cousin, the straight "A" scholarship student, was arrested.
Outraged at the queer injustice of it all, his parents raised high the roof beams, got an expert lawyer, and had the case thrown out.
Now, what my cousin did in the cloak of darkness in an obscure alleyway– away from all prying eyes– was nothing compared to what I used to witness in Center City in the mid 1980s, especially along Chestnut Street near 12th and 13th.
At the time, there was a homeless woman, affectionately called The Duck Lady, who would quack like a duck when she wasn’t asking for money. She was a benign old soul, as sweet as they come and people generally liked her. Rumor had it that she was from an old Philadelphia moneyed family and that once she had lived in a big house before tragedy changed her life. The tragedy, whatever it was, left her penniless, and she wound up on the streets. Soon after that she began quaking like a duck. It was actually Tourette’s syndrome, although next to nothing was known about Tourette’s at that time. The wealthy family connection was also false; she was merely a bag lady with a mental illness.
Stories of The Duck Lady circulated for many years. She became a Center City legend. She’d turn up at art openings and various public events, walk around and quacking. People usually asked if she needed anything, although sometimes getting a straight answer from her was difficult. With real ducks you just feed them bits of bread, but with The Duck Lady people just gave her things: sweaters, designer dresses, new boots, hand bags and sneakers. She was a favorite among the hippie/bohemian crowd in West Philadelphia’s Poweleton Village. In some cases these circles adopted her as a mascot.
The Duck Lady’s fans realized she was losing it when in the middle of a weekday afternoon at 13th and Chestnut Streets she pretended that the sidewalk below her was a commode. She proceeded to do the "porta-potty" deed among scores of startled pedestrians some of whom screamed and covered their eyes. There may have been police in the area when this happened, but whatever the case she was not hauled away. I think had she been hauled away there would have been a small riot.
"Leave the Duck Lady alone!" I can hear the crowd chanting, even if, frankly, the future looked bleak for her if this behavior became permanent.
In Europe there are many public bathrooms. However when I was in Paris several years ago I was shocked to discover that hundreds of men line up in a row and openly relieve themselves late at night along the Champs Elysees. French pedestrians on the street were oblivious to the sight. No one seemed to care. Even police officers looked the other way. Unlike the scene in American cities where late night "goers" at least attempt to hide, on the Champs Elyees all the men had become like Philadelphia’s Duck Lady.
I thought about what the reaction would be if something like this happened on a mass scale in Philadelphia. For one thing, each and every one of these would be given a one hundred dollar fine, which of course would be entirely appropriate if only because "going" should not be an orchestrated event, like a Jay-Z concert.
But honestly, what’s a gentleman or lady to do if there are no public restrooms?
"South Street is the city’s second most visited tourist area," Councilman David Cohen told Philadelphia City Council way back in 2004, "yet there are no public facilities available for all these tourists."
The situation remains the same in 2014, 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 go in public then provide public restrooms!
In 2012, 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.
Many Philadelphia public restrooms have been closed because of a vagrancy problems. It’s not uncommon to hear that once reliable city restrooms in 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 the improved 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.
Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, especially along the Broad Street concourse during the Mummer’s parade, attracts revelers who line up the way they do in Paris. While the police discourage such behavior, the sheer numbers of law breakers makes handing out tickets impossible. The presence of porta-potties lately has helped relieve that situation.
Under the Rendell administration, the city tried to 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.
But can a major tourist attraction like Philadelphia afford to wait any longer?
The Chinese may have the answer. The city of Beijing installed 7,700 public toilets in city streets because their government feels that all travelers should find a toilet within an 8-minute walk in the business area.
After decades of inaction, in late 2012, Philadelphia did install a pilot pay toilet near City Hall; complete with a self-cleaning apparatus and piped in music. The structure proved too good to be true. The pilot program simply vanished.
Perhaps if they had skipped the music and stuck to essentials the project would have worked.