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The Worst Public Bathroom in New York

The Worst Public Bathroom in New York
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The New York Public Library's on-again, off-again plan for a billion-dollar renovation is back on, the New York Times reported earlier this month.

The plan calls for adding a circulating library into the iconic main building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, which is currently only for research. To finance the addition, the library will sell two major properties in its network: the Mid-Manhattan branch, catty-corner to the main building, and the Science, Industry and Business Library, a research building at 34th and Madison.

As someone who works out of the main library several days a week, I feel as qualified as anyone to comment on the expansion plan. There are a few things I like about it, including the addition of lots more workspace for writers and researchers, and the extended hours. There are also several things to dislike, such as the demise of the science library and the intention to move 2 million books from the main library stacks to an off-site facility in New Jersey. The library's current off-site reserve process is sluggish at best; much improvement will need to be made to recall books within 24 hours, as the library promises.

But my greatest concern comes with the projected rise in annual attendance from 1.5 million to 4 million. That's great for the circulation of books, to be sure, but potentially very, very bad for the men's bathroom. 

A word of advice to Norman Foster, the British architect designing the renovation: don't overlook the loo. I can't speak for the women's facilities, but the men's bathroom at the main building of NYPL must rank as one of the worst of any major institution in the city.

New York City is no national leader when it comes to public bathrooms. (That title belongs to Portland.) Compared to Singapore, which has an estimated 29,500 public bathrooms, New York had fewer than a thousand park and subway bathrooms as of 2009, according to a brief history of the city's facilities at Untapped New York. The problem has been notable since the 19th century, writes Michelle Young, but got particularly bad in the 1970s:

As the economy struggled in the 1970s, crime and vandalism increased in the subway system, and the majority of the bathrooms were closed to the public. In 1975, pay toilets were outlawed in response to the charge that they discriminated against women. Women always needed a stall, while men could relieve themselves anywhere, opponents argued. Other opposition included claims of discrimination against the disabled or that public restrooms would attract child molesters, vagrants and drug-dealers.

The city also has a great many Starbucks to bear what some might call the public bathroom load. That changed last fall, however, when the company announced it was converting many of its facilities to employee-only. "Starbucks cannot be the public bathroom in the city anymore," a company source told the New York Post.

So long as that title doesn't transfer to the public library.

Where to begin with that men's room. For starters, it's in the most remote part of the building. That's great for the smell, which is potent by early afternoon, but it also means you're slightly out of breath from climbing the stairs to get there, and therefore inhaling more generous drags of this odor than you'd prefer. 

The facility itself is also painfully narrow, an uncomfortable arrangement of space made worse by the fact that most patrons, fresh off the streets, have their bulky coats and bags with them. There's even an oddly placed drinking fountain inside the bathroom, which, well, the word refreshing does not come readily to mind here.

The sinks were designed for a three-handed race of beings. The push-faucets require constant pressure, which means you either depress the knob then play beat-the-millisecond before the flow shuts off, or must soap one hand at a time while pressing the faucet with the other. Many faucets have flat out retired from the stress. The result, as I've witnessed far too often, is a hand-washing capitulation that results in none at all. That might not be so bad if the building had positioned one of its many new hand sanitizers outside the bathroom, but it has not.

The upshot of these clumsy faucets is a counter top that's regularly flooded. That situation can't be handled with paper towels, because there are none, which is probably for the best. Even if there were dispensers, they'd surely be empty by noon. But this leaves just two options for hand-drying: two weak-willed air machines, perpetually on their death rattle, one of which might reasonably be called the Asthmatic 9000, and the other the 7500. Those patrons willing to endure the frustration of actually using a hand dryer must wait minutes, plural, for the person in front of them to finish using it, which often means they don't wait at all, which explains the rather slippery floor one finds right outside the bathroom entrance.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

None of this is to say that New York doesn't have any good public bathrooms. In fact there's a shining example right in NYPL's backyard, in Bryant Park, which was a finalist for the extremely official America's Best Restroom contest in 2010. (It lost out to an ice cream parlor in St. Louis.) New York also boasts plenty of online tools to find a reasonable facility: a Yelp list of the public bathrooms, various sites and apps that help you find a restroom that never sleeps, even a new social bathroom network called CLOO that locates friendly toilets via Facebook and Twitter.

Still, if New York City is ready for an expanded public library, it's surely even more ready for expanded public facilities.

Top image: Jaochainoi  / Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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