Sunday, December 09, 2007

Public restrooms are a humane gesture

Here is an article that was published in the Free Press today. Link here.

Wins Bridgman, who earlier this year moved his architecture firm from tree-lined River Heights to the shores of a sea of vacant lots at Higgins Avenue and Main Street, has asked the city to construct a public washroom on North Main, in an effort to mitigate the problem of public urination on the strip. He has even offered his firm's services free of charge.

The location recommended by Bridgman is on vacant city-owned land at the northwest corner of Higgins and Main, the former site of the architecturally charming Savoy Hotel, which was demolished in 2000.
The idea is a good one, but the suggested location makes Bridgman's purpose for this undertaking a little redundant. In my observations as a regular pedestrian on Main, this corner of Higgins and Main is only used by the local indigent population when they are travelling to and from points north of the CP Rail tracks, and not as a place to congregate.

Crossing Higgins and Main is a fairly arduous thing for anyone to do, particularly at the northwest corner, where a freeway-like exit lane curbs off Main. It is unlikely that the people who gather at points around Main and Henry Avenue (a block south) would make the walk up the street and across Higgins, to use a restroom. For that much effort, they may as well walk the same distance to Main Street Project's drop-in on Martha Street, where bathrooms are already freely available.

What would be more effective in dealing with the problem of profligate public urination, is a public facility at the Main and Henry intersection, such as somewhere on the Thunderbird House property, which is becoming a popular campground for drinking and sniffing parties. Or in a self-contained area just inside the unused Main Street entrance of the Salvation Army building, where people already regularly urinate in the doorway.

Perhaps the point of suggesting a restroom facility be placed at Higgins, in an unbusy corner of the Main Street strip, is that it would be largely ignored by the regular Main Street drinking and sniffing crowd (and thus less intimidating to other pedestrians to use). Conversely, it may draw them away from Main and Henry to a new locale in and around the new restroom, making Main around Henry a little more attractive to other pedestrians, and future commercial development.
In any case, public restrooms in cities are not a new thing, and serve as a practical necessity for pedestrians. In European and major North American cities, they are commonly found in streets, parks, and squares. One exception to this rule is New York City, which is known among tourists for its lack of public facilities.

On, an article on the subject recommends visitors use the restrooms in the city's countless Starbucks locations.

In Winnipeg, searching for a Starbucks downtown would be a time-consuming exercise, and building public facilities may be a better course of action. It's true that it would be used mostly by the poor, but who besides the poor walks in Winnipeg anyway?

A photo I recently found of the corner of Logan Avenue and Main Street circa 1918, shows a rather stately looking restroom constructed of limestone and brick standing alongside the Occidental Hotel. In the foreground of the photo, a police officer stands, minding the busy intersection.

His presence in this photo provides some indication of why public restrooms were probably less subject to misuse in 1918 than they would be today.

Though it was indeed bustling, North Main in 1918 was still not entirely wholesome.

Men who slept in the neighbourhoood's shabbiest boarding houses would traverse the strip between choice drinking spots on the riverbank, loading docks and the seedy hotel bars and pool rooms. Even back in 1892, North Main was called "Winnipeg's Bowery" -- a reference to New York City's legendary skid row.

Today, a police officer standing at a street corner or walking the beat cannot eliminate crime and disorder entirely, just like a public restroom cannot eliminate open urination entirely. Nor can either of these things solve the host of social problems that face the city's poorest citizens. But the presence of officers of the law and civic amenities like public restrooms instil a message in the mind of the public, that we as a society do care enough to provide proper safety and sanitation, and a greater sense of order and decency for everyone.