A brief history of New York mayors trying, and failing, to fix the city’s bathroom shortage

Every recent mayor promised improvements to the city's bathroom situation; by and large, all of them failed

A brief history of New York mayors trying, and failing, to fix the city’s bathroom shortage
“The city’s track record for the past 30 years; it’s not even close,” said architect Julie Chou. (Photo via David Goehring/Flickr)

New York may be famous for its poorly-managed ambient trash, but deserves equal notoriety for its less visible, equally fragrant counterpart: poorly-managed ambient piss. 

Yes, GarbageTown, USA is so short on public bathrooms that we had a hit musical called Urinetown, for god’s sake. During peak lockdown when the only place to socialize was outside with nary a restaurant bathroom in sight, we collectively let it rip anywhere and everywhere, and since then, @got2gonyc, which chronicles the locations of places for the public to relieve themselves, has become a social media juggernaut.

In theory, then, it’s nothing but great news this week that Eric Adams has launched  “UR in Luck," a new initiative aimed at expanding public bathroom access across the city, complete with a tidy little piss pun in the title. The basics of the plan are as follows:

The Department of Parks and Recreation will build 46 new restrooms over the next five years and renovate 36 more. The city has already introduced a new Google Maps layer to help users find nearby public bathrooms in places like parks and libraries in a pinch, and is “establishing a task force” aimed at “fast-tracking approvals for 14 new high-tech, self-cleaning automatic public toilets on city sidewalks and plazas.” (NYC Parks representatives were unable to comment before press time.)

Lord knows we would welcome all the extra bathrooms we can get, but given the scope of the city’s shortage, fewer than 100 new bathrooms over the course of five years begins to feel like not much more than a drop in the toilet tank.

“I think it’s great they’re focused on planning to provide bathrooms, but I think it needs to be much larger and much more creative and innovative,” said architect Julie Chou, who has co-authored multiple studies on the city’s chronic lack of available public bathrooms.

By comparison, last summer City Councilmember Sandy Nurse of Brooklyn put forth a proposal to create an additional 3,100 public toilets across the city, up to a total of around 4,200 by 2035, which would shake down to about one toilet per 2,000 residents. (The bill appears to still be in play, but Nurse was not involved in Monday’s Ur in Luck announcement.) Right now, we’ve got around 1,100 public bathrooms in total, which means about 1 toilet per every 7,700 New Yorkers, as Hell Gate reported last summer.

“The city’s track record for the past 30 years; it’s not even close,” Chou told The Groove.

And about that track record: Adams is hardly the first mayor to pay lip service to solving a problem that, all pee pee and poo poo jokes aside, leaves thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers without access to a basic human right and dignity, every day. Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane:

The expense and apparent difficulty of creating public bathrooms is part of the reason advocates including Chou are pushing for options that incorporate public/private partnerships as well, such as paying restaurants with outdoor dining space some level of stipend in exchange for opening their bathroom doors to the public. 

A large part of the equation also comes down to public pressure, which may have increased since the onset of the pandemic.

“Bathrooms are not a sexy issue,” said Chou. “I think it did help that we had a public health crisis, and four years later for people to keep talking about bathrooms, it’s really exciting.”

She added: “[Elected officials] say ‘the community is against this,’ but the community wants bathrooms, they can’t blame the community anymore."

As for the Adams administration’s fresh attempt at tackling this most dehumanizing and avoidable of civic problems, if he’s content to let his constituents choke to death on exhaust from suburbanites’ cars, it’s hard to imagine him coming through on this other basic quality of life issue, but you never know. In the meantime, we can always go piss on at city hall.

Don't flush this independent reporting down the drain! Become a paid New York Groove member today to support worker-owned local news, and get access to the FOMO Calendar, swag and more.