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

Wednesday, Mar 19 2014
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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.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
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.

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