Though there are many contenders, the distinction of dirtiest street in San Francisco belongs to St. George Alley. It lies at the cusp of North Beach, flanked by cigar clubs and expensive paella restaurants, a swank cosmetology school, and the Academy of Art — all signs of ballooning wealth in the city. But the alley itself is strewn with bunched-up napkins, beer bottles, a discarded towel warmer from a barber shop, ominous puddles, and worse things besides.
St. George Alley illustrates, for those willing to visit it, that a city harboring the world's most advanced companies is still plagued by the same problems that beset medieval Europe. The worst urban conditions befoul the footpath of the most well-heeled residents. The inability of the city to adequately solve the Great Waste Issue is yet another way of getting at just who, exactly, the city is for. So get comfortable: The conversation over the economic shifts in San Francisco has included luxury high-rises on Market Street, cafes and boutiques on Valencia, evictions all over town, and toast. Now, to complete the circle, we must discuss toilets.
Or, really, public restrooms. Which, like housing, are the canary or the barometer or the inkblot telling us how the city feels about the people in it.
The prospect of a truly democratic, general-purpose toilet has long eluded city officials. Utilitarian, New Deal-era restrooms were designed for everyone, followed by similar visions for one true People's Toilet. San Francisco being San Francisco, things have since gotten weird. The green, bunker-like JC Decauxs have been monopolized by drug addicts; older facilities have been padlocked; restroom-construction costs have skyrocketed as only S.F. construction costs can. And now, of course, tech start-ups have come along to disrupt the peeing industry.
Dolores Park's current renovation will include a Parisian-style pissoir where the IPA-infused waste of park-goers can be funneled back into an eco-friendly irrigation system. Meanwhile, a urinal in the Tenderloin that feeds into a bamboo garden will endure the harshest tests a urinal can face. Increasingly, San Francisco's public restroom demands are getting innovated, tricked-out, and reconceptualized beyond the stainless-steel-and-concrete dreams of early-20th-century utopians. And at long last, libertarian ideals of total bowel deregulation and complete personal bladder authority (beyond the reach of government plumbing) have been achieved by sharing-economy services like New Orleans-based start-up Airpnp, which allows residents to rent out their bathrooms for up to $10 a pop.
Of course, like everything else in San Francisco, it turns out that potties have long been lashed to political debates. In a city that's constantly reimagining itself, a restroom isn't just a place to pee, after all. It's part of a larger dialogue about who owns the public space. It's a piece of architecture that's at once public and intimate, where the landed gentry have to squat right alongside the city's poor. "I think as you see a more stratified city, obviously the restrooms are gonna become more politicized," former Supervisor Chris Daly says, remembering years of public-restroom football in City Hall.
For at least a decade, bathrooms have stood in for the city's anxieties about homelessness, public utilities, and the changing economy. They've created fault lines and frenemies, they've cost untold millions of dollars. (The tab for this year's renovation of a particularly infamous Portsmouth Square lavatory comes to $1.13 million). They've become porcelain tea leaves through which we can analyze the city's development, and proxies for all of its battles. Scoff or turn away at the door, but it's undeniable: Toilets have been markers for civilization since long before even the venerable coffee bar, and understanding the city now is just a flush away.
An amateur historian could infer volumes about any San Francisco epoch by analyzing its restroom architecture. Most of the barracks-style johns in neighborhood parks were built during the Depression by a labor force employed through Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. Most of those structures were concrete, and utilitarian, though a few had decorative adornments. Frank Triska, a former Recreation & Park volunteer who sat on the department's (ridiculous, though inevitable) Restroom Task Force in 2009, says one playground bathroom in the Sunset District stood out for craftsmanship, with its arched doors and tiled roof.
"It has sort of a cottagey look," Triska muses. "The others look like bunkers where you'd store war material."
Restrooms of an older vintage were built to last — one need only look at the two "Public Convenience Centers" on the Great Highway, which date to a pre-WWII era when words like "outhouse" and "water closet" were too profane to put on public signage. Though they didn't hew to any particular aesthetic movement, Triska says, most had sturdy masonry and ceramic or porcelain fixtures. The ones by the Great Highway are impressively large, with Ionic columns built into their facades and high ceilings that bathe the interior spaces with natural light. They are tiled like the floors of a Vermeer painting, with the actual facilities — several urinals and some toilets — clustered in one corner to make the room look even bigger.
Owing to the politics of the time, these marvelous citadels were possible because they were substantially cheaper than today's bathrooms. San Francisco's top-down government structure of the early 20th century wasn't encumbered by democratic ideals, or edicts to serve everyone, or directives to incorporate community input in the design. The city didn't have to meet disability law requirements or hire well-compensated union labor, or pass muster with both the Park commission and the Arts commission. Old-school construction process lacked utopian pretensions. But then, it didn't need to accommodate a cacophony of opposing views.
Nearly a century later, politics and city bureaucracies have transformed dramatically. Rising maintenance costs shuttered many bathrooms, while disproportionate social services led to a boom in the homeless population. There were fewer public restrooms to accommodate a greater need for them. St. George Alley and other unfortunate streets bore the brunt.
The economics of toilet design had to change.
In 1995, San Francisco hammered out a deal with a French advertising company, JCDecaux, to furnish 25 self-cleaning toilets along the downtown corridor. Squat and olive green, they promised to cheaply meet the city's utopian aspirations. Anyone could pump in a quarter, open the door, use the toilet, and watch as the machine sealed itself shut for a mysterious 60-second cleaning cycle in which the JCDecaux hosed all its surfaces and blasted itself with disinfectant.
In a city bedeviled by change, the French toilets seemed like a miracle. Tourists, homeless people, and shoppers on Market Street would all pee in the same hole, and JCDecaux would deputize its own maintenance crew to clean up every morning. The French company charged nothing for its boxy toilets, which resembled big oil drums or artillery bunkers, because they also served as advertising kiosks. The company rented that signage and pocketed the revenue.
But it didn't take long for a foreign toilet with lofty aspirations and good business sense to fall into ill repute. The JCDecauxs became known as "20 minute hotels" for prostitutes and drug users. Vagrants slept inside; addicts wedged knives beneath the doors to keep cops from getting in.
"I've actually seen shit on the floors," a homeless vet named Peter Skelley says, rattling off the other iniquities he's witnessed in those shiny European johns: people cooking up dope or shooting heroin.
Granted, his horror stories pale in comparison to a JCDecaux maintenance man at Fifth and Market streets, who easily recalls the worst thing he's seen: "A dead body. From a drug overdose."
The JCDecaux toilets have come to represent a form of cheap civic beneficence — a way for San Francisco to feel it was aiding its downtrodden at a time of budget austerity. And their structures convey as much: big, can-shaped bunkers with glossy panes for advertisers.
It only took a small margin of the population to ruin the democratic restroom model for everybody else. But, as is often the case in San Francisco politics, that small sliver wielded a lot of influence. Toilets quickly came to illustrate all manner of livability issues, and the utopian dream of tourists sharing clean, cottagey space with their homeless counterparts withered away. The restrooms of San Francisco had failed as a utopian experiment; they were commandeered by a small minority but inaccessible to the masses.
And still, the streets grew fouler.
Erstwhile Supervisor Chris Daly never asked to become a stalwart for public defecation, but in 2002, he became a defender of shit-by-association.
"It wasn't a position I wanted to defend," he says, recalling how he landed on the wrong side of the public poop debate, and how it soiled his subsequent political campaigns. Daly felt he had no choice. Another former supervisor, Tony Hall, had drafted a comprehensive plan to combat homelessness downtown, which included an ordinance against defecating in public.
"You couldn't even walk along any of the downtown streets without smelling urine," Hall says, explaining that the city had padlocked many of its neighborhood restrooms to cut costs and save manpower — even if, as Hall argued, it costs just as much to power-wash the streets.
Restroom austerity begot filthier streets, Hall notes, but it was hard to crack down on the itinerant defecators if you weren't giving them a place to do their business in the first place. Daly certainly wasn't having it.
"He would push back on anything that counted as discipline for the homeless," Hall says, recalling that the two supervisors eventually compromised, and co-authored an ordinance with then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom. It included a fine for anyone caught copping a squat, and a provision requiring the Department of Public Works to keep up-do-date web listings of available restroom facilities.
"If you give [the homeless] a place to go, they should use it," Hall surmises. "And if they don't, they should be penalized. It's an affront to people using the public streets."
Robert Freedman, a 50-year-old homeless man in SOMA, might say it's not so simple. Freedman's worst call-of-nature calamity happened last year, in the dead of night, in an alley on Natoma Street. He'd just finished relieving himself when a beat cop sneaked up behind him.
"He said, 'Clean up that shit or you go to jail,'" Freedman recalls, his eyes narrowing angrily. "I said, 'How am I gonna do that? I don't got a broom or nothing. And he said, 'Use your shirt.'"
Freedman's altercation with the cop occurred just blocks away from the coin-operated JCDecaux toilet at Powell Street. But in a neighborhood where the public toilets are just squalid enough that most homeless people say they'd prefer to pee between cars, it didn't seem that shocking. During the day, Freedman uses the bathrooms at Hospitality House Sixth Street Drop-in Center, one of several Hospitality Houses scattered throughout the Tenderloin. But those close at 5 or 7 p.m., he says, and at night he has fewer options. Freedman stuffs wads of toilet paper in his pockets, just in case.
"It's obviously an issue not only for the homeless people, but for people watching the homeless defecate in their doorways," Hospitality House's development director Daniel Hlad says, adding that he and other service providers have no way to fix the problem. "We can't stay open 24 hours," Hlad explains. "If we had unlimited funding I'm sure we could. But given our current capacity, this is what we can do."
Eventually, Hall and other politicians managed to persuade the city to reopen many of its park restrooms, which helped curtail waste problems while shunting the burden over to San Francisco Rec & Park. Thus, another agency with limited resources was dispatched to manage the city's most well-trafficked and wretched lavatories. Hall deemed it a common-sense decision, but he recalls that some Rec & Park bureaucrats cried foul. They didn't have enough personnel to beautify johns that might have languished since the Depression, let alone clean up the ones serving high-density areas like Portsmouth Square.
In 2008, the department, already saddled with a $2 million dollar backlog from deferred maintenance costs — and run-down facilities throughout the city — sent perky mailers out to the residents of San Francisco, each featuring a map of the city dotted by 35 stars and a picture of the new bungalow-style john that city officials installed in the Panhandle in 2007. The Panhandle potty included a shingled roof, skylights, open-air grated doors, and forest-green tiled trim — and at $531,219 cost nearly as much as a small house in the Excelsior. Plumbing renovations, ADA enhancements, and union construction all contributed to the overall tab. Scrutiny from multiple city agencies ensured that the new john would be a utility, an equalizer, and a thing of beauty, all wrapped into one costly package. It was a harbinger of the times.
The mailer, proudly displaying the new utopian crapper, exhorted voters to pass ballot Proposition A, the $185 million parks bond that earmarked $11.4 million for bathroom renovation. Voters obliged, perhaps not realizing that restrooms cost as much as residential real estate in San Francisco. The Panhandle john was no outlier.
The new crop of restrooms in San Francisco are well-maintained and fabulously expensive, though a $531,000 privy might not shock a citizenry already numbed by $4 toast and $5 drip coffee and exorbitantly priced boutiques on Valencia. They've come to symbolize a strange cultural moment for San Francisco, when the city's long-held do-gooder sentiments are butting up against its obsession with high-tech gadgetry, and its desire to garnish everything — even toilets — with aesthetic frills.
Nouveau restroom design in San Francisco might best be encapsulated by the new Dolores Park rehabilitation project, which will serve tens of thousands of weekend loungers on 16 acres of lumpy, manicured grassland. For anyone who's spent a weekend drinking on those sun-dappled hillocks, the line snaking behind the park's concrete clubhouse is a familiar sight. Add to that a tried-and-true law of human behavior — that the urge to pee in a bush rises with the amount of beer consumed. Such circumstances have led many a well-preened citizen to indulge his baser instincts.
As a result, parts of the city's most park for the most upwardly mobile residents smell like some of the alleyways downtown.
"Public urination has been a significant problem along the western edge of the park," Rec & Park project manager Jake Gilchrist says, explaining that the clubhouse restrooms were too small and remote to accommodate people who hang out in the southwest corner by 20th and Church streets, affectionately known as the Gay Beach. Many of those folks were peeing on the Muni tracks.
Park caretakers are determined to rectify that problem.
Over the next several months, Recreation & Parks will lavish some $12.4 million on amenities for the area, part of the 2008 parks bond. The list of enhancements includes new tennis courts, new irrigation systems, and new, intelligently outfitted restrooms to replace the ones in the clubhouse, which will soon be razed.
The two 1,300-square-foot bathrooms set to go up on either side of the park offer enough restroom real estate to fit 31 toilets, park officials say — 14 for women, five for men, eight urinals, and four unisex stalls.
But the park's most talked-about piece of toilet architecture will crown the top of the hill. Called the "pPod," it's a stark, minimalist structure modeled after the Parisian pissoir — nothing more than a drain hole and modesty panel to hide the user's mid-section. The panel, composed of 2-inch mesh screen rather than corrugated steel, will harbor vines and trellising plants, turning the pPod into a thing of (relative) beauty. It's the next stage in bathroom evolution and, like its forebears, tells us a lot about who we are now.
In fact, the pPod illuminates S.F. cultural sentiments even more than its bigger, costlier contemporaries. It's the iPad of urinals — sleek, ascetic, indomitably practical and, new to the S.F. restroom vision, equipped with features that match the city's environmental sensibility (peeing back into the earth) and its Francophile aspirations. San Francisco has a long history of poaching concepts from the French: After the Gold Rush, our scrappy city tried to repackage itself as "The Paris of the West;" more than a century later, then-mayor Gavin Newsom promised to turn a newly gentrified Market Street into our own Champs-Elysees.
Incidentally, the pissoir will likely be a more flattering form of imitation. Bucking another trend, it's a cheap $15,000.
Only one other futuristic San Francisco toilet could possibly upstage the pPod. Called the "PPlanter," it's a wonder of science and urban planning: part toilet, part bamboo garden, outfitted with pipes that pump urine and faucet water into an airtight tank, clean it through a bio-filter, and feed it to the plants. Engineers from Oakland's Hyphae Design Laboratory pilot-tested the idea last year on Ellis Street, near the back entrance of Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin (which, as any San Francisco resident can attest, is ground zero for toilet R&D). They hope to launch a new iteration this year in partnership with the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District, and a proposed budget of $160,000 for the entire project — mostly deriving from grants.
The next phase, officially christened the Tenderloin Ecological Toilet Project, will comprise a toilet, two urinals, a sink, a wheelchair ramp, and vines or trellising plants — all configured to fit within two parking spaces. Its gray-water flushing system will erase foul odors while its foliage will add a "beautification element," according to Susie McKinnon, associate director of the community benefit district. McKinnon compares the Ecological Toilet Project to parklets that have popped up around San Francisco, converting paved streets or parking spaces into greenery. It's a waste repository with bold aims. Its components — all wrought from scavenged industrial materials — apply high-minded ecological ideals to primordial human behaviors for those who need it most.
It transforms pee into garden mulch. Its elaborate title bespeaks a noble calling.
In a city obsessed with innovation — app-based car services, Airbnb hotels, bridges that double as art projects — it's little surprise that someone turned toilets into architecture. These new crappers mirror the city's preoccupations with environmentalism, social good, and urban renewal, infusing the most basic human need with a raison d'etre. A PPlanter is the kind of thing you could field-test in the Tenderloin and then exhibit on the Playa at Burning Man.
That said, it's unclear whether these high-concept water closets can withstand all the abuse that's beset the JCDecaux boxes. Bathrooms are "site-specific," and heavily influenced by their environments, Gilchrist says. A pissoir might serve as a hipster urinal in the Mission District, and a crack den when it's redeployed in the alleyways downtown.
The city's most imaginative and cost-effective bathrooms may not be able to serve everyone. They might not even be able to serve a segment of the population that needs them most. But in San Francisco, the toilet finds a way.
At midnight on a balmy Saturday in September, Doniece Sandoval stepped in the shower for the first time in five days. A handsome woman with elegantly arched eyebrows and platinum-streaked hair, she'd spent the better part of the week in shower abstinence, relying on body wipes and store bathrooms. Sandoval devised a demonstration to drum up support for her mobile shower project, Lava Mae, which rehabs old Muni buses and turn them into roving lavatories for the homeless.
Last year, Sandoval secured her first scrapped bus from the SFMTA and launched a $75,000 crowdfunding campaign to gut and retrofit it. As word got out, more donations came in. Now, Sandoval's first bus is parked in a maintenance yard in Sacramento, where workers are installing two washrooms with showers, and a seat for people to change their shoes and socks. Sandoval hopes to debut it in the Mission and Bayview districts this spring, pumping in water from fire hydrants, cleaning it with a disinfectant, and draining it back into the catch basins in the streets. She still needs about $75,000 to finish the rehab, at which point she'll ask SFMTA to donate three more junkers.
If the Lava Mae pilot works out, Sandoval hopes to raise enough money to put three more buses on the road. Neighborhoods famous for their fetid smells would suddenly be awash in public restroom infrastructure — which, Sandoval says, would spare those streets that have suffered so many years of abuse.
"There are 25 JCDecaux public toilets in the city, and as wonderful as it is to have them, they have problems," she says. "People sleep there, they don't lock, people get caught inside if they don't leave in time for the [automated] cleaning." San Francisco has a poop problem, Sandoval continues, but the homeless aren't the ones at fault. "You just have to imagine how degrading it is for someone, when nature calls and they don't have a place to go."
Or their place to go is a side street. St. George Alley, the filthiest street in San Francisco, is a by-product of a political system that hasn't found a true utopian solution. Maybe because there is no single People's Toilet.
This dissatisfaction is what's created the split: On one side are entrepreneurs like Sandoval, who want to repurpose old institutions like Muni buses into the toilets for the homeless; on the other is Airpnp, the Louisiana-based restroom-sharing start-up that infiltrated San Francisco.
Airpnp, a company modeled after the room-rental service Airbnb, allows residents to rent out their private restrooms via a website. Thus far, listings have cropped up for an apartment bathroom in the Marina, whose owners regale their clientele with incense sticks and old copies of Popular Science magazine ($5 per squat), and a pair of bathrooms in Oakland with copious supplies of Cottonelle tissue ($3). An Airpnp at 20th and Guerrero had to remove his listing because he got too many calls.
"It's like Uber," Airpnp co-founder Max Gaudin says, explaining that the current, primitive system is just a website that broadcasts local toilets-for-hire, but the next phase will feature a mobile payment app. In essence, it will privatize a system that's long been the domain of public agencies, offering San Franciscans with smartphones and credit cards the chance to enjoy a new adventure in urinating.
Peeing on a bus, in bamboo, or in some entrepreneur's flushable goldmine: The range of options has never been wider, or weirder, or more telling of the fact that the city's heart follows its bladder. As the toilet economy keeps blossoming from its New Deal origins, better, stranger, costlier (or cheaper) models will evolve. Cultural divisions will deepen. More private homeowners and entrepreneurs will commandeer what was once a public utility to serve rich and poor in the way that unites us all. You can already recognize the city's various dialogues in the bathroom options being installed throughout its neighborhoods.
That's something to think about, the next time you're standing in line with your legs crossed: You came for simple relief, but the room itself can never rest.