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New York City is lacking public restrooms, but officials hope to offer some relief

People wait in line to use a public restroom at Bryant Park, in midtown Manhattan, on June 28.
Austin Cope/NPR
People wait in line to use a public restroom at Bryant Park, in midtown Manhattan, on June 28.

New Yorkers are known for always being on-the-go. But finding a place to, you know, go, isn't easy.

Patricia Kennedy saw that firsthand during her recent weeklong visit to New York City from Orlando, Fla. She was entering the subway station at the World Trade Center when a smell hit her.

"I was like, 'Oh, my god,' " she says. "And it wasn't urine."

It was human feces. And she's sure she wasn't mistaken.

"We have a pet, and it definitely didn't smell like a dog['s] or look like a dog['s]– it was human," she says. "It was disgusting."

Kennedy, 40, who works in the financial sector and was visiting the New York in hopes of relocating for a job, says her experience in the subway station didn't affect her desire to move to the city. But since she'd never seen something like that in Florida, it made consider what she'd have to tolerate if she does move.

"[I]s this what we have to deal with on a regular basis, like, smelly subways, or human feces?" she wondered.

Though New York City has the largest population in the country, it has around 1,400 public restrooms, according to a city report from 2019. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said Tuesday at a rally and press conference on the New York City Hall steps advocating for more restrooms.

"That number, weighed against a city of eight and a half million [people], is paltry," he said.

Levine is one of a group of local elected officials hoping to improve the public's access to restrooms. A city council bill that would propose locations for a new public restroom in each of the city's more than 150 zip codes held its first committee hearing Tuesday. Advocates see access to public restrooms as a basic human right, especially for the city's approximately 50,000 residents who are experiencing homelessness.

New York has a ratio of just 16 restrooms per 100,000 inhabitants for its 8.5 million population

According to the city's report, New York ranks 93rd in the U.S. in its ratio of public restrooms to people, with just 16 restrooms per 100,000 inhabitants. At the top of the list are St. Paul, Minn., with 210 restrooms per 100,000 people and Jacksonville, Fla., with 140. The report also finds New York's public restrooms to be in disrepair, unsafe, and inequitably distributed around the city.

The pandemic highlighted the city's restroom shortage when many restaurants and businesses closed their doors during lockdowns in 2020. The city's subway system also closed restrooms in all of its more than 450 stations, and they haven't reopened since.

"During the pandemic, you couldn't find a bathroom anywhere," said Rita Joseph, a city council member and a lead sponsor of the bill. She said having more restrooms is good for people visiting the city and for residents going about their daily lives.

"New York is a moving city. We have elderly on the move, we have pregnant women, we have neighbors, we have moms, we have dads. When I go out with my 11-year-old and he has to use the bathroom, we have to find a location," she said.

People without access to restrooms were forced to urinate or defecate in the streets

For Nicky Smith, a resident of the Bronx, the city's low rankings weren't surprising. Smith generally found it easier to find a public restroom in Manhattan than in the Bronx, and says the city's public restrooms are often unclean.

"It's definitely something New York should invest in," says Smith, 28, who is nonbinary.

Smith said they've also noticed the low number of public restrooms in the course of their work as health outreach manager for people experiencing homelessness. When many of the city's restrooms shut down after the pandemic began, they often had to convince private businesses to allow unhoused people to use their restrooms. They also witnessed people without access to restrooms forced to urinate or defecate in the streets.

"At the end of the day, it's a public health issue, as well as a policy issue," Smith said.

A previous effort to put in new restrooms also ... stalled. A 2006 agreement to build 20 restrooms throughout the city resulted in only five constructions, while the other 15 remain in storage. The mayor's office and contractors blamed the slow rollout on COVID-19 pandemic, difficulties finding locations and access to utilities, and some neighborhood opposition. But years later, the effort remains blocked.

Even the current proposal could take some time to move. If passed by the city council and signed by the mayor, the legislation would only lead to the creation of a report –with input from the public and neighborhood officials– that identifies possible locations for new restrooms. It does not fund staffing or construction of restrooms– those would require separate council votes, officials explained at the rally.

Brooklyn resident Ed Graban says that in the 19 years he's lived in the city, he's learned how to find restrooms when he needs them. But for people who are new to the city or who don't have regular access, he says it would be harder. The challenge, he says, is making sure bathroom users aren't made uncomfortable or unsafe by entering when people are using them for washing or shaving.

"They need to find a way to make them safer," says Graban, 50, adding that the city should also be taking steps to improve people's access to housing.

Other city residents echo Graban's concerns, worrying more public restrooms would not be kept clean or that people would use them for shelter.

Samantha Teruel, 35, who lives in Manhattan, says she often avoids public restrooms.

"I'm always afraid of them being unclean," she says, explaining that she generally uses restrooms in restaurants in other businesses instead. But having more security and regular cleaning could help, she says.

"The truth is, it's the community that has to take care of them."

Local officials supporting the bill admit that restroom access overlaps with other deeper issues in the city — such as housing — but Levine said at the rally that more bathrooms could only help, and the study was the first step.

"This will allow those New Yorkers with the dignity of a place to go," Levine said. "And that's a win for everybody."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Austin Cope