IT'S JULY 1915—five months until Oregon's version of Prohibition goes into effect—and the secretary of the Portland Chamber of Commerce can think about only one thing: taking a leak. Bars across town have begun closing up shop, ushering stumbling regulars out the door and singlehandedly eradicating the city's public restroom network. Shit's about to hit the fan.
"Has the thought occurred to you that there will be a considerable need for comfort stations throughout the city, on account of the saloons going out of business?" the secretary asks Mayor Harry Albee in a letter. "It may be, of course, that you have the matter entirely solved."
Nearly a century later, Portland has barely inched forward in its efforts to solve the toilet problem. Late-night revelers are still taking dumps on strangers' front lawns, and city workers continue to power-wash the stench of urine from downtown alleyways. The few public restrooms left are mostly neglected, closed, or grimy, while those new, space-age silver Portland Loos pop up at a snail's pace. The old question remains: Why has Portland taken so long to establish a sustainable public toilet system?
Think about a public restroom. Are you smiling contentedly, picturing a pleasantly lit, comfortable, and lavender-scented room? Doubt it. Public restrooms are vile, dark, ammonia-drenched dungeons—the last, shameful resort after waiting in the Powell's bathroom line for 15 minutes. In your imagination, their dark corners likely hide used condoms, contaminated syringes, and rats—no place for an innocent, doughnut-gobbling tourist, let alone an actual resident.
Then there's the homelessness issue. Public restrooms are often the easiest place for people living on the street to seek cover during a storm, or wash up after showerless weeks.
"People see public restrooms and they see the toilet for homeless people," says Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate Skateboards, who's watched the downward slide of public restroom availability from his Old Town shop. "But this shouldn't be a socioeconomic issue. It's an issue of civility."
Or maybe the disgust for public restrooms in just in our blood.
"Being an uptight American puritan is in our genes," says Randy Leonard, city commissioner in charge of the Portland Water Bureau. "It seems like our puritanical roots have taken hold in public restrooms. We don't want to hear you tinkle, and, by God, we don't want to see each other's ankles."
Portland hasn't always turned its nose up at public restrooms. As predicted, the possible closing of downtown saloons in 1915 inspired a battle cry for a slew of public restrooms (or, as they came to be pleasantly referred to, "comfort stations"). Portland's first station opened its doors in 1913 on SW 6th and Yamhill, on the sidewalk in front of the Pioneer Courthouse. Equipped with fresh towels, bars of soap, ornate tiling, and a salaried attendant, the free-of-charge underground bathroom and its subsequent comfort stations were a godsend. An Oregonian article from 1914 illustrates that in one month alone, a combined 74,000 men and women paid them a visit.
"This amount of traffic in itself would go a long way toward supporting a profitable business," wrote the city's commissioner of public affairs to Mayor Albee. "I will be glad to do what I can to get plans in definite shape toward carrying out my suggestion."
In 1914, Laurelhurst Park built its own classy comfort station. Then, one arrived in downtown St. Johns in 1916. Thus began the Portland public restroom craze of the early 1900s.
Following their initial boom, comfort stations remained relatively popular for the next 40 or so years—although the attendants and plush towels were replaced with janitors and automatic hand dryers. But budget gaps, plumbing issues, crime, and general city neglect led the restrooms to a gloomy demise. By the mid-1980s, most of the city's once-praised comfort stations were shuttered, graffiti-riddled skeletons of their past selves. The original underground restrooms outside Pioneer Courthouse are still beneath the busy sidewalk, their intricate tilework and pedal-powered porcelain sinks now adorned with dusty spider webs.
"The door still functions as a urinal," jokes Vic Rhodes of Portland Mall Management, Inc. (PMMI)—a company responsible for maintaining the public throughways surrounding Pioneer Courthouse Square—pointing to the locked, urine-streaked entryway to the bathrooms. PMMI bought the pair of kiosks that lead to the abandoned bathrooms a few years back, hoping to turn them into ticket booths for Portland events. But could the bathrooms ever be returned to their original use?
"Oh, no," says Rhodes. "They're too far gone."
The '80s brought the downfall of these once-popular comfort stations and, by the 1990s and early 2000s, there was essentially nowhere to go downtown if you needed to relieve yourself. The parks bureau's brick-and-mortar bathrooms were populated more by drug dealers than people with full bladders. The city installed grinders underneath toilets in a restroom alongside Lownsdale Square to pulverize the syringes, clothes, and trash that kept clogging the pipes. Many shop windows posted "No Public Restroom" signs.
"The time had come—we realized that we have to be able to be better than this," says Tom Carrollo, general manager of downtown Portland's Beardsley Building Development and member of the Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association.
Randy Leonard was also fed up with the embarrassing lack of public restrooms downtown. In 2007, then-Mayor Tom Potter attempted to open city hall for 24-hour restroom use—but after a few weeks, realized only a few people were using it. Others suggested a stand-alone bathroom with an attendant, but restricting its hours to the daytime.
"How is that a solution? People pee 24 hours a day," says Leonard. "In my head I was thinking: 'There has got to be a better solution.'" And there was.
In collaboration with Potter's Restroom Implementation Team—a group of concerned downtown neighbors and business owners, including Carrollo—Leonard created the Portland Loo: The silver bullet of a single-person public restroom made its debut in 2008. The loo is raised off the ground just enough for the police to keep an eye on potential criminal activity, but private enough for the pee-shy.
"They're impenetrable, that's what makes them work," says Leonard.
Leonard's push for the loos wasn't entirely met with open arms. In 2009, when Pearl District neighbors realized one of the loos—which they referred to as magnets for "noise, crime, and door slamming"—was slated to set up shop in Jamison Square, they turned city council into a battlefield, quelled only by Mayor Sam Adams' gavel. While the loo's manufacturing cost, $58,000, sparked initial debate between city officials, the price tag for a regular new parks bureau bathroom is a hefty $250,000. Now, the loos, designed by Curtis Banger and built by Northwest Portland's Madden Fabrication, are slowly being marketed across the globe—there is one in Victoria, British Columbia, and they're under consideration in San Diego—and might even bring the city money.
With the construction of a sixth downtown loo underway, the public is already clamoring for more. When the fifth loo opened in the Pearl District at NW 8th and Couch early this year, the neighboring school performed a song of thanks, happy they no longer had to set orange cones up around the piles of human feces that graced their playground daily.
"People are happy with what we've created. Businesses have told me their streets no longer stink of urine," says Leonard. "I think that's a good sign."
Weiner of Cal Skate echoes Leonard.
"In my work as a downtown business owner, there has always been a real push toward public restrooms," says Weiner. "It was either our businesses' toilets or the street for a long time. Now it's different."
But the Portland Loo program may soon come to a halt. Leonard steps down from his commissioner seat this year, and he has passed the loo crown to fellow commissioner and sewer bureau head Dan Saltzman, who has no intention of building more. Saltzman has promised to maintain the ones currently in place and see through the construction of two that are in the works.
However, Carrollo—who, after his involvement with the loo design, co-founded Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (PHLUSH), a local organization pushing for toilet availability—is not ready to accept the looming standstill. Composting toilets, emergency toilets, and toilets as works of art are just a few options PHLUSH has brought to the table and hopes to implement citywide over the next few years. Carrollo says the loos are just a start.
"As a public restroom? The loos are a better solution than what we had before, which was nothing," says Carrollo. "But people are still peeing on things. It's a big city. We have a long way to go, and we can only hold it for so long."