By Sam Allis, 7/9/2000
To find a bathroom in Boston is to rely on the kindness of strangers.
The city provides no public restrooms. Zero. Tourists and residents in need must beg in eateries and hotels or radiate "I Belong Here" sang-froid to gimlet-eyed staff.
Dress matters. No margaritaville flip-flops and tank tops if you expect to reach the second-floor sanctum at the Ritz, off of the tea room. There are other options. Asked recently where a man could find a toilet, a hotdog vendor in Post Office Square pointed to a honey locust in the nearby park and replied, "See that tree ...?"
There is always City Hall. Literally. City officials say men who can't wait frequently urinate on the building's southeast walls, "so we power-wash them several times a week," reports Carol Mathieson, assistant to the chief of Basic City Services.
The public bathroom, like federal highway funding, is not a subject that comes easily to most of us. But its conspicuous absence in Boston does damage to a city that craves international acclaim, not to mention the global tourist trade. The Big Dig may be an inconvenience, but the lack of public toilets is an insult.
To be fair, many American cities, like Chicago and Dallas, offer no such convenience. But some do: San Francisco's 22 toilets have totaled 2.5 million flushes since they appeared in 1995.
Modest relief in Boston is on the way. The city is mounting a pilot program that, with luck, will place eight public toilets around town sometime next year. While folks in these parts consider these devices as revolutionary as the self-cleaning oven, Parisians have been enjoying such amenities for decades.
The Boston Eight will not come cheaply. Built by Wall USA Inc., the American arm of a Berlin-based company, they will run almost $250,000 each. But then: The door opens automatically after 20 minutes; the toilet disinfects itself after each use; the floors move for washing and drying cycles; it is monitored electronically around the clock on a panel board at a central site like the war room in "Failsafe." And it sports toilet paper dispensers on both sides of the commode.
City officials hope the first three toilets will be installed by year's end. Until then, Starbucks will continue to function as Boston's prime provider of public bathrooms for many. In the ubiquitous coffee emporiums, restroom keys are prized like precious metals. Always sited amid heavy street traffic, Starbucks outlets are lifesavers for mothers with children on the verge, or adults in crisis.
With the exception of department stores, most retailers have opted out of the bathroom business. Not just Armani; the Gap is no haven in a storm either.
The reason most often given is theft; bathrooms make it easier for dishonest customers to hide the goods before walking out the front door. At least that's what they say at Tower Records, which anchors the most crowded block on Newbury Street and offers no public facilities. The hordes of people who frequent the place end up at Starbucks or J. P. Licks down the block.
Seasoned Boston residents, who leave nothing to chance, maintain their own secret lists of bathrooms honeycombed across the city. Like parking spaces in the Back Bay, this information is divulged only under duress.
Some veterans favor old standards like the facilities in Filene's, off of Women's Petite on the fourth floor. Others are recidivists at the basement bathrooms of the Boston Public Library. Still other cognoscenti disappear like miners down the stairs of the Boston Common Underground Garage.
But visitors are clueless. They are strangers in a strange land, at risk in traffic and at sea in the local argot. How would they know that there are toilets below ground in the Post Office Square parking garage, not far from the honeylocust suggested by the hotdog vendor? And if they miss the visitors centers on Boston Common or the National Park Service, they're out of luck.
There is always the spiffy Boston bathroom guide at www.boston-online.
com. But how many people avail themselves of it, let alone know about it, before they hit town? And there is nothing in print to rival two New York City bathroom books: "Dear John, A Guide to Some of the Best Seats in New York City" and "Where To Go, A Guide to Manhattan's Toilets."
Some high-volume areas in Boston are better equipped than others. The facilities beneath the Quincy Market, for example, are clean, well lighted, and relatively attractive. We're not talking Martha Stewart, but they look swell as these things go.
Newbury Street, by contrast, is the boulevard of the bloated bladder. It boasts Cartier but no public bathrooms. Locals may know that Trident Booksellers & Cafe manager Richard Stasium lets anyone use his facilities, as do the folks at Sonsie restaurant across the street. But in general, says Stasium, the situation is dire. "You're out of luck in this city," he concludes.
Mathieson, of the city's Basic Services department, acknowledges the problem on Newbury Street - and the mayhem that would accompany the obvious solution.
"If there ever were a street in Boston that could use a public toilet, it would be Newbury Street," she says. "But I know I'd be run out of town on a spear if I proposed it."
The locations of the eight toilets are supposed to be determined within 90 days after the contract is signed later this summer. Among the sites under consideration: the Congress Street side of City Hall, Boston Common near the Public Garden, Boylston Street, the Prudential area, the New England Aquarium, Charlestown's Constitution Park, and perhaps the Children's Museum.
But judging from the toilet wars in New York City, such schedules are meaningless. Cycles of heated debates and desultory inaction over the issue have continued for over five years there without a street bathroom yet in service. There is $5 million in New York's new budget to build and site 50 to 100 public toilets.
"People have been screaming for them," said Jordan Barowitz, spokesman for New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, the moving force behind the project. "We've gotten a ton of letters saying, 'Thank God, you're doing this.'"
There will be slugfests in both cities over where these things will go. While some neighborhoods will want them, others will recoil at the mere thought of them. Barowitz swears that some of the toilets will end up on the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue, but it is hard to imagine a metal contraption that takes quarters on the sidewalk outside of Bergdorf's.
Although New York has not yet put the project out to bid, it expects to pay far less than Boston for its toilets. Why should the ones in Boston cost more? "You need a lot of education before you can even ask that question," cautions Mathieson, who says the devil will be in the fine print of the two contracts.
Like those planned in New York, Boston's toilets will cost a quarter to use. In addition, the city will allow Wall USA to mount 150 advertising panels, 4-by-6-feet, on city sidewalks to generate more revenue. Another four advertising panels will adorn the walls of each oval-shaped bathroom, which Mathieson calls "quite beautiful."
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A truly gorgeous public toilet would be one that improves on the southeast wall of City Hall without costing as much as a house.
This story ran on page F01 of the Boston Globe on 7/9/2000.