“BATHROOM FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY,” reads the sign in front of you. An urge boils to the surface. Not the biological urge that brought you to the cashier in the first place, but the urge to tackle said cashier and wrest the bathroom key from him. Or just give up and pay for a Tastykake Krimpet you don’t want and won’t eat. Either way, it has to happen now.
There’s a Latin word for this scenario: micturition. It doesn’t just mean the urge to urinate, but the intense urge — the willingness-to-take-a-swing-at-a-stranger urge. And an argument could be made (the Romans certainly did) that the mark of a civilized people is not only plumbing, but public access to that plumbing. “An unobserved toilet is not worth having,” said Socrates (probably).
Philly currently does not do a great job of providing this public service. At last count, there are no permanent free restrooms run by the city. You might find a free toilet here or there in a library, mall or particularly benevolent KFC (good luck with that), but if you’re looking for a permanently maintained, inspected, stocked public restroom, we’ve got exactly zero. In a city of 1.6 million people — not a one.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when public bathrooms dotted America in porcelain glory. Notice I didn’t write free public toilets.
A brief history of public toilets in America
At the dawn of the 20th century, railroad stations were one of the few places that even had toilets, and those privileges were restricted to ticketed passengers. A turning point in privy history came when the doors to those restrooms were combined with vending machine technology. A few coins in a slot meant the difference between finding relief in public and finding yourself on the very wrong end of a stewed liver sandwich.
Could there be anything more American than combining basic human relief with capitalism? “Of course not,” said all the railroad tycoons. Before long, other companies jumped on the ordurous bandwagon. Stations, airports and even busy roadsides all boasted their own comfort-for-coin stalls. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was apparently notorious — a company called Nik-O-Locks ironically charged a whole dime to get to its public toilets.
But America is also the land of human rights. So eventually a couple of upstarts founded The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA), declaring the public go to be a public right. Because of their efforts, Chicago was the first to step up and ban pay toilets in 1973 (for women’s liberation, they said, since only stalls, not urinals, were locked). Other cities followed suit and by 1980, 50,000 public pay toilets had dwindled to almost none.
One man’s success is another man’s … emergency
CEPTIA may have emerged righteously victorious from the bathroom wars, but it drastically underestimated basic capitalism. When the potential for Nick-O-l and diming dried up, so too did public restrooms. And most cities have done a poor job filling the vacancies ever since.
And it’s particularly unhelpful to have so few toilets around when a wave of Hepatitis A breaks out across the city — which happened in Kensington in 2019. Hep A is transmitted through bodily fluids, especially by touching feces. The City responded to the crisis by installing two restroom trailers, as well as a few hand-washing stations.
As Kathleen Grady, chief of staff for Philadelphia Health & Human Services told me:
Each of these trailers had the capacity for six stalls. That was our approach to the outbreak. And the numbers have come down since.
The thing is they’re not designed for everyday, high-volume use. We had a lot of operational issues because they’re designed for one-time events. When we used them, they were hooked up for more than a year. So we had a lot of plumbing issues like replacing grinders.
People have this mental idea of what a porta-potty is going to look like. Ours are clean and well-maintained, but when you look at them from the outside, you kind of dread using them.
Which brings us to something called The Portland Loo. Picture a large metallic ticket booth with slats at the top and bottom. From a recent promotional video:
The Portland Loo is a single occupancy structure that is plumbed directly into your sewer. Its sleek design features heavy-duty stainless steel with an anti-graffiti finish, along with lighting and an outside handwash. While the Portland Loo is popular in its hometown, it’s becoming the preferred choice in other cities throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The Loo is so popular in Portland that there’s a 12-minute YouTube video of City Commissioner Randy Leonard christening one of these booths. And yes, he is flanked by a choir of elementary school children singing a cheeky, toilet-themed rendition of Blue Moon. Because … Portland.
We became convinced that we had to have easily accessible and safe bathrooms. Portland actually holds the patent on the design of this loo and we sell them to other cities. They have proved to be a tremendous success.
As the promotional video goes on to say:
Every city and park needs a public toilet. Ours is an affordable and sustainable turnkey solution that can be in your city within 60 days.
“Can be” is the operative phrase here.
One city on the receiving end of the Portland Loo is Ventura, California — and soon, hopefully, Philly. Nancy O’Connor, Parks & Recreation director for Ventura, says:
Out of the blue, I got an email from one of the staff members in Philadelphia. He said, “We got your name because you have some Loos in Ventura. Would you be available to talk to us?” As silly as it sounds, I love talking about them.
The Ventura Parks Department had been overseeing public toilets before installing these Portland Loos, and let’s just say – It. Was. Not. Pretty.
Until we got the Loos, we literally had to keep our restrooms locked. We were having so much vandalism. We’ve had restrooms burned to the ground. We’ve had just the most awful filth spread in restrooms. It makes it so nobody can use them. We were spending so much money on maintenance and repairs that it became a no-win for us.
We had one restroom near a kid’s soccer field – a traditional brick and mortar. We couldn’t keep it clean. The parents were all complaining, and rightfully so. We just had to tear it down. Unfortunately, the reality is people will spread feces all over the walls. It happened so often…just way too often. Because it’s a brick and mortar, you can never clean that off. You can scrub and you can spray, but you can never get it out of those pores.
Once we got the first Portland Loo installed, I was beyond hooked. I was so excited.
It’s simple, it’s easy to clean. It doesn’t look odd in a park setting or a public setting downtown. And it’s basically plug-and-play. If you have sewer and water connections, you pour a pad and drop it down. I mean, it has a floor drain so you can literally take a high-pressure hose and spray it all down.
And the whole unit is made as one piece. You can’t tear the toilet out – which we’ve had happen…so many times. You can’t tear a sink off the wall. You can’t tear pipes out. You can’t burn it down because it’s steel.
For us, the Portland Loo is about being able to offer to our community, our residents, our tourists, a dignified place to use the restroom.
The title of this story should be changed from Ideas We Should Steal to Ideas We’re Trying to Steal. Philly officials were impressed enough by O’Connor’s Loo testimonials that Health Department employees drove out to Hoboken, NJ to visit a unit in person.
I tried to talk them into coming out to Ventura. I said, “C’mon, Ventura or Hoboken?” And they were like, “I know, right?” But when you have a budget…
As a result of that not-so-exotic field trip, roughly $1.8 million was budgeted for the purchase and installation of six Portland Loos throughout the city. The first (which will be located in Center City at 15th and Arch) was supposed to be operational this fall. But actually, the headline to this column should read, Ideas We’re Trying To Steal: Curse Our Broken Supply Chains.
Did you know there’s a supply chain issue with the chemicals needed for counter coating? We’re working really hard with our Portland Loo supplier and we are hopeful that in early 2023 we’ll get our loos. The sites haven’t all been chosen yet, but we’ll be doing a robust community engagement process to determine them.
So once supply chain woes work themselves out and locations are decided, Philadelphia will be the proud owner of six sleek, futuristic public bathrooms — easy to clean, wheelchair accessible, resistant to vandals and relatively inexpensive. At least to maintain.
The unit itself is around $100,000. But with installation, etc, we’re budgeting for around $300,000 per unit. One of the reasons we looked at the Portland Loo is, yes, there’s a higher up-front cost, but in the long term it will save us money in rental fees, daily service fees, septic pumping costs and constant repairs.
Are there critics?
There is a stigma attached to public toilets. They are seen as magnets for crime, devious behavior, and inappropriate activity. There is some level of truth to this, which is why Portland got into the loo business in the first place.
What makes our restrooms unique is their design – understanding that people can and will commit crimes in public spaces. The louvers on the top and bottom were specifically installed to create a lack of privacy. They’re inspired by European models. The police can look in and see feet or heads, but nothing else. If there are more than two sets of feet, they can intervene.
There’s no mirror. It has a prison-grade toilet. There are no faucets inside so people won’t go in and wash clothes and themselves – the handwashing station is outside on the wall. With these restrooms, we haven’t had the problems you normally find with other public restrooms across the country. We’re very proud of that.
We are working really hard with community stakeholders and the police department. When we were doing site selection, PPD was out there with us from the beginning. They were giving us analyses of the sites and operation plans.
We already piloted public restrooms in Center City where the Loo will be located and we haven’t seen an increase in crime. They’ve been installed for almost two years now. We don’t think there will be a shift in crime just because the bathroom looks different.
Cristina Laboy is the Environmental Services Manager for the city:
In areas where we did community engagement, everyone was for having public restrooms. They knew toilets would be available to parents, to workers, to unhoused individuals. They no longer had to be concerned about going outside and seeing people relieving themselves. Honestly, I have not received any feedback from individuals who are opposed to this. At all.
In fact, the service to the community these toilets provide extends well beyond the business going on within its four walls, as Laboy explained:
Currently we have two restroom specialists who oversee toilets four times each day. They maintain and stock the units with toilet paper and feminine products. They also engage with the public – with community members and those experiencing homelessness. They can refer individuals to places for food and clothing. They carry, and are trained in administering, NARCAN. They have Fentanyl testing strips. They can do Covid tests. They’re just walking dispensers of knowledge and resources.
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