If it feels like we’ve been having the same conversation, it’s because we have.
At the turn of the 20th century, the city was full of newcomers and folks passing through at the time — immigrants, travelers and people on their way up to Alaska to strike it rich.
So, the city used money from the general fund and a small levy and eagerly began building public restrooms — called “comfort stations” — around town.
The Pioneer Place comfort station — underground, beneath the pergola that still stands today — became a crown jewel of the city.
Visitors could get a haircut and a shoeshine. Boys sold cigars and chewing gum after school. It drew wide, but not unanimous, support.
The Seattle Christian Endeavour Union’s Good Citizenship committee passed a resolution in support in 1908, calling the comfort stations “an absolute necessity in the interests of good health and morals.”
The editorial board at the Seattle Times, however, called it “hideous,” saying it “all but ruins Pioneer Place.”
One citizen wrote in to the Times in 1919 to say that the city should incorporate comfort stations into every new firehouse.
“While the location may be remote today, it will be most important tomorrow. Even in the residence sections, [public restrooms] are needed, and I believe the mail carrier and the delivery man would agree with me.”
Today, Metro drivers would agree, too.
But gusto for comfort stations faded and funding became harder. By the end of World War II, the comfort station in Pioneer Square was closed.
In 1963, the station in Westlake was also shuttered.
And, as we all know now, they were not replaced.
About every 10 years or so, we pick this conversation back up. The letters in support in 1909, 1919 and 1969 all sound an awful lot like the auditor’s report released in February, which confirmed what many in our community already knew — we are still in dire need of public restrooms in this town.
There was Council Member Nick Licata’s 2006 effort, which was piloried in the press, setting the city at least three steps back.
And now, here we are.
It’s curious; leaders and citizens alike understood, in 1909, that humans need accessible restrooms — and that providing them was positive for the city. So they made it happen.
Why can’t we do it now?
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and political consultant.
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