Late last year, I realized a dream I’d held since I was 17: I moved back to Oregon. Several friends have asked me how Portland compares to Seattle and there are really two key metrics: First, Portland has an unbelievable array of vegetarian food; Seattle, despite many traits that might make a person think otherwise, has gone full-on Meat Hipster in the last decade.
And second: publicly-available restrooms. Plural. Which are not locked at unusual times and are serviced regularly.
These red portable restrooms, which were launched in partnership with Portland’s own Street Roots paper, are not fancy. But they are functional. And they are accessible. And that is, compared to Seattle’s draconian lockdown on public commodes, incredible to me.
Seattle did, famously, have public restrooms in the past. In addition to the extremely fancy underground “comfort stations,” which featured vendors and attendees, there was also that time in the 2000s when the City flushed millions on some unnecessarily upper-crust self-cleaning toilets that were promptly removed and have been the butt of jokes for well over a decade now.
Since then, the question of how to provide public restrooms has been dragged into a morass of data, ideating and nimbyism. Do we reopen the abandoned comfort station? Do we invest in some kind of full-time infrastructure? Do we get Jeff Bezoes to subsidize what should otherwise be a publicly-provided good?
So imagine my surprise when this Portland solution was just so simple. Portable. Toilets. Serviced regularly.
These are a fantastic service for unsheltered folks, of course. Everyone, as we all learned early in life, needs to use a restroom every single day. But here’s the thing I’m realizing about public bathrooms (you know, the kind that Seattle has precisely zero of): They’re good for everyone.
They’re good for runners, like myself, who are often outside for hours at a time. They’re good for parents who need to change diapers or diabetics who need to re-up on insulin or folks with chronic illnesses who need reliable restrooms and often plan their days around them.
Parks should help bridge this gap — we all pay for them, whether we use them or not, and they already have bathrooms built right in — but the city has shown at every turn that this is not their intention. Many restrooms are closed (citing the season or COVID or no reason at all) without warning or replacement.
And then people wonder why Seattle’s public areas all smell like a toilet when it’s been too many days with no rain. If your city locks its bathrooms or fails to provide them at all, you have to expect that the entire city will become a public restroom.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer from the Northwest. Her work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, the Nation, Pacific Standard, Bust, GOOD and the New York Post.
Read more in the Mar. 3-9, 2021 issue.