When homelessness is the topic, the framework is normally night. We talk about how many shelter beds are being used. We distinguish between homeless people who have a place to lay their heads down and those who sleep on the street.
It’s an understandable emphasis, because there is something elemental about wanting everyone to be inside and safe when it’s dark and maybe cold. But homeless people are homeless during the day, too. Many work or go to school, but for those who don’t do those things—or who do them irregularly—it’s during the waking hours, when they might truly have no place to go.
In the summer, this means finding a way to beat the heat. In the winter, it requires managing the cold. But all year round, being out of doors during the day creates a basic human problem: Where do you go to the bathroom?
This is a problem that other New Yorkers—like, say, reporters working in the field, or parents toting a child who suddenly starts doing that tell-tale dance—face as well. Sometimes, if you’re willing to spend a couple bucks in a bar or store, you can get access to their john (a hopping child usually bolsters your case). But that path isn’t open to people without bucks to throw around. So, they go where they can, which can be humiliating, and result in a summons, and isn’t ideal for property owners and passers-by, either.
The area around the Metro-North station at 125th Street and Park Avenue and Harlem is an epicenter for this problem because many New Yorkers who are homeless gather there most days. It’s no surprise, then, that the area has been a hotbed of citation activity for public urination over the past few years, according to the group Picture the Homeless.
And while there is a tremendous amount of development activity in the area—there’s a new Shake Shack a couple blocks a way, there are active development sites on three of the corners near the station, and the recent East Harlem rezoning is remaking the broader neighborhood—one peculiar building sits dormant: A comfort station on the south side of the street under the railroad tracks. In other words, there’s a bathroom sitting idle in an area where people are often looking for a place to go.
Picture the Homeless is pushing for the city’s Department of Transportation to reopen that comfort station. Built in the 1890s by the New York Central Railroad, it was mothballed and handed over to the city when the successor Penn Central railroad went bankrupt in 1970, according to The New York Times. Until or unless the comfort station is reopened, PTH wants the city to install an Automated Public Toilet there. Its members say the bathrooms in the Metro North station across the street are off limits to them and that stores in the area don’t welcome those kinds of visits.
A DOT spokesman tells City Limits, “DOT is actively exploring placement of APTs that fit the siting criteria in the vicinity of the comfort station.” It is unclear what the timeline for that is, or whether opening the old comfort station is in the cards.
As you’ll hear in the audio mashup above, (featuring the voices of PTH civil rights organizer Nikita Price, PTG member Charmel Lucas and East Harlem Preservation founder Marina Ortiz) there is both a practical urgency and a symbolic weight to the push for a bathroom under the Metro-North tracks. The pace of change is accelerating in Harlem, with pricier stores popping up on the streetfronts and expensive housing rising to the sky. Amid that “progress,” PTH and its allies want to see something that’s for them, not for wealthier newcomers.
That a bathroom could take on that significance might seem silly. Until you really, really need one.