A pipe burst in the downtown Hartford Public Library last Christmas Eve. Closing the building for extensive emergency renovations has also meant temporarily losing one of the few public restrooms in the area that anyone could use with no strings attached. To be more precise, for downtown Hartford, it leaves a person with two overtly public places to go: Union Station and City Hall, and of those two, only the former is open on the weekend and every evening.
Bushnell Park’s Pump House has facilities, but those are almost never open. It’s as if folks would rather keep the space pristine and unused, than risk letting people maintain their dignity. The new carousel addition has restrooms; the carousel is not open year-round.
Don’t expect to be bowled over by Hartford’s options from the past. Our world today is shaped by the choices people made in the past.
The first suggestion for public indoor toilets in Hartford was made in 1895 by a group advocating for a “House of Comfort” in what was then City Hall. Despite no notable opposition to this idea when it was first hatched, the project took 19 years to complete. That’s a long time to hold it!
The House of Comfort would be part street railway waiting area, part bathroom; city leaders wanted trolley companies to fund this as it was seen primarily as a benefit to riders. There was uncertainty about which side of the building it should be built. After 14 years of debate, the City Engineer solicited designs from local architects. Just as it looked like the people would have a place to relieve themselves, the project stalled again. A federal injunction was filed, claiming that smells from the restroom would be a nuisance to employees at the nearby post office. This was resolved a year later. Then, more delays of the mundane kind: contractor troubles.
Fairly early into the public toilet discussion, there was talk of also building a new City Hall. So, after all of this fuss, the much anticipated House of Comfort opened in May 1914, but city offices relocated to the newly built municipal building three blocks away, a mere 18 months later. In its early years, the facilities inside what is now known as the Old State House were open 24 hours, with paid attendants in both the men’s and women’s rooms. What happened next is predictable. Budget cuts meant the loss of janitorial staff. Operating hours were cut. Decades later, the space only received negative media attention with reports of vandalism; after disrepair, it closed in 1970. By then, restrooms were more prevalent, but that does not mean they were/are hassle-free or that someone catching a late bus would have luck finding one open.
Today, the retail or restaurant restrooms that were available at the whims of staff, are even less predictably open now. Many closed to the public during the pandemic, but even after store managers felt safe enough to take people’s money while dropping mask mandates, some opportunistically clung to Covid as an excuse to bar customers from relieving themselves.
The internet tells me that the average healthy adult urinates 4-7 times per day. This does not take into account those who have a fetus pressing on their bladder or the child who claimed they did not have to go before leaving the house. It does not even start to illustrate what those with conditions like colitis endure.
While there is a law that appears to give people with IBS and other similar health concerns access to staff-only restrooms in retail stores, loopholes mean someone may still be denied. The 2009 legislation already feels outdated. We should, instead, be thinking in terms of universal design. Nobody should have to obtain and display a doctor’s note to strangers in order to access a restroom because everyone should have access. Waiting in line to request a bathroom door code – which you may be denied – while the situation is urgent, feels especially disrespectful in a place that specializes in the sale of diuretics.
Portapotties are not a great solution. Rarely are they present year-round, clean, and stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. They are often not accessible for those with wheelchairs or mobility devices. There’s hardly enough space for one person – how do you use one if you have a young child in tow? They’re impractical for anyone carrying anything, as most do not have a bag hook or the space for one – so if you went shopping or are someone who travels with bags, you are basically asked to leave your belongings outside, unattended. What does this mean for those who are unhoused and schlepping everything they own?
Visitors whine when their parking space is more than a block from their destination, but there’s near silence when it comes to Hartford – and most downtowns – being public restroom deserts. Unlike overhauling our justice or education systems, this is a problem that is easily fixed. The first step: retailers and restaurateurs can take down their unwelcoming signs and remove exterior restroom locks.