Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Occupied: San Francisco: Understanding the City Through its Toilets. Yes, Really. 

Wednesday, Mar 19 2014

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.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"