Sunday in the Park, Feeling Nature's Call

New York Times
April 16, 2010

by Ariel Kaminer

The birds and the bees are in full view across New York's parks these days, but when it comes to another fact of life, the signs can be a little less obvious. In Central Park, where a generous conservancy has attended to every landscaped inch, many maps posted along the way say nothing about any of the 19 free restrooms scattered across its 843 acres.

"If you've got to go to the bathroom, you might have to walk a mile," warned Colm O'Connell, a park plumber whom I ran into as I was wandering around looking. "Some people don't want to do that. They want to go behind a tree. They ask me, ‘Can I go?' " He laughed. "I'm not a cop, I'm a plumber."

Without plumbing, cities could not exist, and without public facilities, people couldn't navigate those cities – they would be, as the scholar Clara Greed has written, "tethered close to home by the bladder's leash." So if an army travels on its stomach, you might say a city travels on its bladder. Why, then, is it so difficult to find a good restaurant on the front lines, or an open restroom in New York City?

A number of community-minded citizens have compiled maps (first on paper, now online at sites like sitorsquat.com and nyrestroom.com) of where New Yorkers on the go can go. My mother's advice: hotel lobbies. And there's always Starbucks.

Public parks present a special challenge. With no Starbucks around, you must attend to intimate needs while in the company of strangers, try to stay clean in a place designed to attract cooties, take shelter in an island of privacy to which the entire city has access.

These paradoxes are nowhere more evident than in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, where Caterpillar tractors fill the air with churning grunts and cautionary beeps, and where visitors relieve themselves as all of Lower Manhattan watches. That's the way it feels, anyhow. Still under construction, the park, for now, offers three portable toilets positioned on a flat expanse of green just yards from the waterfront. They have a stunning view of the financial district. And vice versa.

On the other hand, privacy is not an issue in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx – at least not in the restrooms in the park's southwest corner. Follow the hulking concrete bleachers until you find an inlet. Walk through the unobtrusively marked door, down a flight of stairs, around a corner, past a service window for an office no longer in use, through an empty industrial-beige corridor, to a small sign indicating, by way of an arrow, the direction to Locker Room No. 2, the Female Comfort Station.

Preceded by a tall, empty chamber roomy enough for cocktails for 50, the equally empty toilet area is the very definition of discreet. If a user found herself in need of assistance, female comfort could be a long time coming.

The city's parks include hundreds of spots to heed nature's call, each with its own character: the splendid isolation of the north end of Meadow Lake in Queens, where the sparkling new restrooms are surrounded by cherry trees, but not people; the user-friendliness of the Picnic House in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, where the basement hallway leading to the toilets includes soda machines and a newspaper stand, in case you decide to stick around for a while; the mechanical weirdness of the high-tech pay toilet in Madison Square Park, intended as the first of many and now stranded like a lost visitor from another planet. But none can compare to the grace, the elegance, the downright untoiletness of the public restroom in Bryant Park.

Your first hint is the enormous arrangement of fresh flowers. Accompanying me there recently, Harvey Molotch, the New York University professor who edited the forthcoming volume "Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing," called those flowers "an act of deliberate vulnerability, which signals that something is right about this place." Think of it as the opposite of the "broken windows" theory in criminology: when people see that such care has been taken with something so perishable and lovely, they start to treat the place with care themselves. The wood and marble finishes help too, as do the attendants who are right there at all times, wiping counters and replacing toilet paper rolls. And just in case, the seats are covered in a thin plastic sheath that automatically refreshes itself after each use.

Professor Molotch sees in all this an effort to allay anxieties – about the presence of semi-naked strangers, about the possibility of sex or crime, about the position of an individual in a crowd. "The cleanliness and the high standard of the maintenance signal that not only is something right about the restroom," he said, "but something is right about the park, and by extension the city."

Mr. O'Connell, the Central Park plumber, is partial to the facilities at Bethesda Fountain, and it's not hard to see why. On a recent afternoon, a group of break dancers was playing early Michael Jackson a few steps up from the toilets, while a few steps down, a crowd gathered for a stirring Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 2. It was a spontaneous mash-up with wonderful acoustics – a great show all around. I can't say I had much of a view, but I had a great seat.