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Flush with Enthusiasm

from the magazine

Flush with Enthusiasm

Winter 1995
Politics and law

If Paris can have safe, clean public toilets, why can't New York City? The answer lies not in plumbing but in politics. In 1992, the French company JCDecaux demonstrated its selfcleaning pay toilets at three Manhattan locations, intending eventually to introduce them citywide. The toilets were a hit with New Yorkers who tried them, but the forces of opposition proved to be insurmountable.

Disability activists complained that the standard toilets weren't wheelchairaccessible—never mind that JCDecaux had paired each standard unit with a larger one, manned by an attendant, for the disabled. In January 1993, the City Council decreed that any longterm, citywide toilet plan must use only "universally accessible" toilets, even though toilets big enough for a wheelchair would invite occupation by vagrants and others.

And the Council threw in a further stipulation: any company wanting to bid for a public toilet contract had to demonstrate its product for a year at its own expense (estimated near $1 million), with no guarantee of receiving the contract. It's a highrisk bet, since obstructionists drove JCDecaux out of the city, even though it had already invested in a demonstration.

But even in New York, a determined public official can overcome political obstacles. Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter, selfdescribed as having a "passion for public toilets," has worked indefatigably to make them a reality. She put together a special task force, which found that the Department of Parks and Recreation is subject to fewer restrictions than other city agencies. A German company called Wall City Design, which has developed a wheelchairaccessible toilet that uses electronic sensing equipment to evict vagrants who overstay their welcome, installed one in the park near City Hall. The company will place 15 more toilets in city parks in the spring of 1995 and eventually will install a total of 60.

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