We Need Sanitary, Free Public Bathrooms for All

Whenever I arrive in a new city, I do a quick Google search to see where the shopping malls and libraries are located. Not because I’m desperate to go shopping or check out some books, but because those are some of the few places you can still reliably find decent public toilets these days.

But even then, there are limitations. If you’re coming home from a night out with friends or a late shift, those places won’t be open and you’ll have to hold it. It’s worse if you’re homeless or black — the security guards at the mall may follow you, if not kick you out. Even libraries in some cities are becoming more hostile to poor people.

The provision of public toilets has basically been farmed out to private companies: restaurants, bars, Starbucks. But relying on spaces designed for profit to serve everyone comes with problems. Those toilets are often locked and require a purchase for access — and that’s assuming the staff don’t find you suspect and call the cops.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We all need to use bathrooms, and we all deserve access to free, sanitary public toilets.

Providing high-quality public facilities has long been a focus for socialists. Toilets are no exception.

In the early twentieth century, the Socialist Party had more than 1,200 elected members in 340 cities and towns across the United States, but their impact was most notably felt in Milwaukee. The 1910 election was a red wave, with the Socialists winning the mayorship, a majority of the seats on city council and the county board, most of the other city offices, and even elected the first Socialist congressman.

They lost the mayor’s office in 1912, but Daniel Hoan regained it in 1916 and stayed in the office until 1940. Milwaukee elected another Socialist, Frank Zeidler, as mayor in 1948 who served until 1960.

Over those five decades, Milwaukee’s socialists not only transformed the city, but proved to be incredibly effective at governing and improving the lives of their residents. They were dubbed the “sewer socialists,” originally meant to be a pejorative label to mock Hoan’s obsession with the sewers and public health. But the label stuck, because the sanitation system they built was so good that the city was banned from competing for national sanitation awards by the health department because it won so many times.

The municipal socialists in Milwaukee also made investments in education, parks, public housing, and more essential city services, but their focus on health and sanitation is enshrined in their name. Yet they weren’t the only ones who made massive improvements to toilet access.

The New Deal has been back in the spotlight in recent years with demands for a Green New Deal that are more urgent than ever. Part of the original New Deal included bathroom construction: as part of the Works Progress Administration created to put people back to work during the Great Depression, a program trained more than 35,000 people to build them.

While the government recognized the importance of improved sanitation to combat a range of infections like typhoid fever and cholera, many people still lacked adequate hygiene facilities, especially in rural areas. To combat epidemics, the newly trained carpenters were put to work building more than two million outhouses between 1933 and 1945.

But beyond efforts to build out private toilet facilities, we also used to have more accessible public toilets. When I went to Seoul last summer, I was surprised to find public toilets in the metro stations — and they were usually pretty clean. It made me wonder why something so basic isn’t commonplace in North America. Then I learned subway stations here weren’t always devoid of public washrooms.

The New York City subway once had 1,500 restrooms open to riders, but they have been turned into utility closets or remodeled out of existence in recent decades. Today, only about seventy-five remain in the whole system, and there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to bring them back — even though they would surely be welcomed by riders.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the United States limits access to public toilets. Such limiting has deep roots in the country. We need only think back to the images of segregated toilets and drinking fountains when black people were forced to use separate facilities to white people, partly because of white people’s racist fears of being attacked or catching diseases from lack people. The Jim Crow laws that enforced this racist division were not struck down until 1965.

Today, the modern restrictions on public restrooms keep out homeless people, drug users, people who might have sex in public toilets, and increasingly transgender people. In this way, restrooms are victims of continued stereotypes against marginalized people and a larger disinvestment in a public sphere that lacks mental health support, public housing, and safe injection sites.

Those factors also help to motivate the design of many public toilets. In North America, public restrooms are notoriously terrible. The stall doors not only have big gaps on the top and bottom, but often the sides of the door have more than enough space for people to peer in while you’re doing your business. This saves on installation costs because it requires less construction work, but it also ensures people have no privacy.

Public toilets in Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia, by contrast, often have doors that extend from the floor to the ceiling with secure locks and sometimes even small sinks inside each stall. In Japan and Korea, the toilets often pre-warm the seat and have buttons for flushing, washing, drying, and even playing sounds that will mask your own. Public washrooms and the toilets themselves can and should be better designed to give people dignity and privacy.

A twenty-first-century campaign for public toilets wouldn’t be the United States’s first. In the late 1960s, a group of high school students formed an organization to demand an end to pay toilets. At the time, there were over 50,000 pay toilets across the United States that usually required a dime to access. The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America was determined to outlaw them, chanting at public actions, “we’ll work until we know / that toilets in America / Are free where-e’er we go.”

At the time, general annoyance with pay toilets was already spreading. Toilet users often held the door open for the next person or jammed the locking mechanism so the dime wasn’t necessary. The committee recognized the universal need to use the toilet, stating in their newsletter, “We feel that pay toilets are unjust infringements on our basic human rights … elimination is an important body function that must take place, dime or no dime.” But they also noted the unequal impacts of pay toilet policies: men could often use the urinals for free, but women always needed a dime.

The organization started small and its founders were often preoccupied with their studies as they went to college. Yet it gained attention in Chicago, where it helped win a ban on pay toilets in 1973. That set off a domino effect, with major states like California, Florida, and New York following in the next few years, leading the group to declare victory and shut down in 1976. By 1980, toilets were all but extinct in the United States.

Banning pay toilets was an important achievement — one that Europe still has not achieved. But access to toilets receded in the following decades with the closure of public toilets and an over-reliance on private companies like cafes and restaurants, which have effectively put a price on toilets once again by requiring a purchase for access.

Everyone has to use the toilet. We might not often want to talk about it, but it shouldn’t be so hard to find a public washroom when you’re out and about, at whatever time of day you need to go. No one should have to pop into an alley or squat behind a bush — risking public urination citations or worse — because we’ve failed to ensure the facilities are there for people to use.

It’s time to look back at what the sewer socialists were up to so we can clearly see how our cities have lost their way by farming out so many public responsibilities to private providers. Public toilets are essential, and they should be abundant, clean, and well-maintained. To put people back to work, let’s start a new WPA to build a whole range of public luxuries, including millions of public toilets.

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