The rise and fall of public toilets in Toronto

The city's defecation problem is an open secret thanks to officials who long ago washed their hands of providing bathrooms for citizens


The following is an excerpt from from No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs by Lezlie Lowe and reprinted with the permission of Coach House Books. All rights reserved. Lowe launches the book at Spacing Store (401 Richmond) on November 4 at 2 pm. Admission is free. See listing.


If I’m a tourist in downtown Toronto (which I am), and I have to pee (which I don’t, but, like, give it a little time…), can I find one of the city’s three fabulous, sparkling automated public toilets (APT)? I’m walking in the right direction, I’m sure of that – west from Yonge Street along the waterfront. And I’m certain the bathroom is there, because I Google-Street-Viewed it so I’ll know what it looks like when I see it.

But after a solid 15 minutes of plodding, I realize it’s fortunate indeed that my mission today is only notional. Because if I actually had to pee, I’d be up shit creek.

Toronto is Canada’s largest city. Near 44 million tourists a year hit the region’s streets, people who certainly need places to relieve themselves. The bathroom I’m hunting is on Queens Quay, a main thoroughfare that runs parallel to Lake Ontario. I could map it on my smartphone while I’m walking, sure, but I want to first see what would happen if I didn’t have that particular luxury.

Toronto’s Harbourfront district is far from a no man’s land. I’m walking toward the CN Tower and Rogers Centre, where the Blue Jays play home games. I pass the Toronto Island Ferry Terminal, a plaque commemorating Babe Ruth’s first professional home run, plenty of public art, benches, and expert landscaping. What I don’t pass is a bathroom. Or a sign for a bathroom. I stumble upon a Waterfront Business Improvement Area map, encouraging me to eat, shop, play, live, and stay here. But apparently not go to the bathroom, because that amenity is missing from the checklist. Finally I break down.

‘“Siri,” I beg the butt end of my smartphone, “where’s the closest public toilet?”

Siri, ever-cheerful, bursts my balloon. “I didn’t find any public toilets.”

On I walk.

There are bathrooms here, of course. They’re everywhere. In the snack bars and cafés, and the art gallery facing the waterfront. These are washrooms hidden and assumed – toilets that exist as part of the secret city. If you find them, you find them. If you don’t, you don’t. If you have nerve, confidence, and you look kempt, you get in. If you think you don’t belong, if you’re too shy to ask, or if you’re dishevelled, you’re out of luck. I fall into the former category. The potty privileged. But relying on social advantage isn’t part of today’s mission. Onward.

Finally, I spot it, set back from the corner of Queens Quay and Rees Street. The building is generous for a single-user bathroom – about four metres by four metres, on a concrete pad with an outside bench. The exterior is graffiti-free, a tasteful combo of light grey and aqua green, matching the city’s bus shelters. It costs a quarter to get in. (I know this and I’ve excitedly packed several in my jeans.) But my change stays pocketed today. Not because this toilet hunt is purely academic. But because this toilet is closed.

I stand across the street from the Harbourfront toilet, taking in the cacophony of construction and the makeshift fencing surrounding my potential potty paradise. The bathroom is a temporary casualty of a $150-million street renovation to make Queens Quay more pedestrian-friendly and welcoming for tourists. (Oh, the irony here today.) Past the shards of debris, on the bathroom’s sliding steel door, I see a redundant paper-and-Sharpie sign: ‘OUT OF ORDER.’ (Though I have to wonder: is it, in addition to being cloistered inside a temporary three-metre fence, also broken?)

Chris Bateman is waiting for me across the street from the Harbourfront automated public toilet. “I didn’t realize!” he says, palms up to the pell-mell construction activity. Bateman is a professorial-looking freelance journalist wearing a brown corduroy blazer, a pocket square, and argyle socks. He’s agreed to meet to enlighten me on the middlebrow history of Toronto’s public bathrooms. We dart away from the mess and noise to find a bench as I apologize for being late. Bateman understands. “I think the problem is that unless you’re from here, they seem hidden,” he says.

Bateman grew up just outside London, England. He moved to Toronto in 2011 and he’s probably as close as Toronto is going to get to a public toilet historian. It was all a fluke – Bateman was at the archives looking at 19th-century photos for another story he was researching when he noticed, in one of the black-and- white shots, an ornate iron railing to… nowhere. It turned out to be Toronto’s first public bathroom, built in 1885 on Toronto Street, opposite what was then the central post office. The bathroom was an underground, male-only amenity, with four urinals and three stalls, and an attendant who shined shoes and kept order. The entrance down to this groundbreaking public work was, inexplicably, smack dab in the middle of the busy street.

As Bateman discovered in his research, there had been plenty of calls for public conveniences in Toronto toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. It seemed like everyone wanted them. Thing is, no one wanted them anywhere near their houses, or their businesses, or their places of worship. The same supplicant-obstructionist political conundrum bubbled up when the city put in its second public bathroom (again, for men only) 20 years later, at the corner of Queen and Spadina. That one, too, ended up right in the middle of the busy thoroughfare.

“The answer,” Bateman discovered, “was to put the entrance an equal distance from everybody’s buildings.’” (Though how lasting an answer is another question – the Queen and Spadina bathroom was pulled out of service after several years because it was so damn hazardous.) The pattern played itself out with Toronto public toilets into the 1920s: we need these facilities, but we want to pretend they’re not there. “The sense I got from it,” says Bateman, “was that it was a sanitation issue.”

Kind of.

Toronto stands as a decent case study in the rise and fall of public toilet provision. Popular would be too strong a word for bathrooms in the context of the history of Toronto, which by 1900 had a population of 200,000. There were never more than 15 or 20 on-street (including both above-ground and subterranean) bathrooms in the city at one time, Chris Bateman guesses, and they were always floating in a municipal provision murk. Needed but not wanted. They had the potential to be great equalizers, but they showed a mean streak of social stratification.

Toronto closed its stand-alone public bathrooms one by one over the mid- to- late- 20th century as they broke down, became difficult to maintain, and − often precisely as a result of being broken and dirty − went mostly unused. Another tactic used by Toronto officials in the face of not-in-my-backyard toilet upset was to shunt them away in parks. It was a devious cycle of self-fulfillment – moral objections pushed toilets into the shadows, the shadows made them less safe and less visited, and that bolstered their bad reputation.

Alongside the ongoing ill feelings about public toilets, Toronto passed a seemingly progressive bylaw in 1921 requiring every new gas station to provide a public bathroom. Gas stations would bloom like algae in Toronto and across the country through the 20th century, as they would in most major North American cities. Fuel stations reached a peak in Canada of more than 20,000 by 1989. That’s a lot of bathrooms. But that original bathroom-adding legislation would have an unforeseen lasting impact – it would become an early step in Toronto, and other municipalities all over North America, washing its hands of providing bathrooms for citizens. The rise of the gas station rest stop raised a slew of still lingering questions about who’s responsible for providing hygiene and toilet provision for the mobile and for the most vulnerable.

Today, in addition to the three automated toilets, Toronto has a year-round permanent 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. bathroom facility at Nathan Phillips Square, outside city hall. (In it: three toilets and three urinals for men, and three toilets for women, making it 2:1 in favour of men. Sad trumpet.) There are also a number of park bathrooms – though most close at night, and most for the entire winter.

Officials rarely hear calls for more, I was told by Elyse Parker, of the City of Toronto’s public realm section, when I spoke to her in 2014. “As the city densifies, there are more and more opportunities to use bathrooms in restaurants, in stores, in cafés,” she said. “Starbucks has kind of become the new public toilet.”

But Starbucks hasn’t been an option for everyone. Ask Philadelphia’s Rashon Nelson, who was told in April 2018 by a Starbucks manager that he couldn’t use the restroom because he wasn’t a paying customer. He and business partner Donte Robinson – both African-American – were then arrested as they waited at a table for a meeting with a third man about a real-estate transaction. In the wake of the incident, Starbucks declared its bathrooms open to anyone, so long as the customers – paying or merely hanging out – weren’t disruptive. Though this take-all-pee-ers approach has long been the informal policy at Tim Hortons and it certainly didn’t help the angry pooper in British Columbia.

So how much will it aid street-outreach clients stuck walking the streets in smelly, wet trousers?

This is where Toronto’s automated public toilets could make a real impact. And this is why I’ve gone on this Harbourfront toilet mission – the Hunt for the Queens Quay Loo. In 2007, Toronto signed an agreement with Astral Media to install and maintain 20 of these toilets across the city over 20 years: all of them available 24/7, year-round. The bathrooms come prefabricated at 250,000 bucks a pop installation costs can near-match that amount. The units require water and sewer connections, and hydro. They are heated in winter and air conditioned in summer.

“It’s really like putting in a small house,” Parker said. Once she put it that way, the half-million-dollar cost per unit made more sense. Though in this scheme – as with most such agreements between media companies and municipalities (think New York, for one) – none of this cost would be borne by the city. It would be Astral’s role to buy the bathrooms, install the bathrooms, and maintain a three-visit-a-day cleaning schedule over the twenty years of the contract. In exchange, the media conglomerate would own the exclusive right to sell advertising on Toronto transit shelters and information columns.

In Parker’s estimation, the total profit was to be one billion dollars over 20 years, with a minimum of $429 million coming directly to the city through revenue sharing, and likely more. But the toilets have proven challenging to site – ostensibly because of their size, but I’m going to go ahead and suggest there’s some classic toilet nimbyism happening, too.

So where does that leave Toronto? Three APTs have been installed and a fourth is planned – so far, so good – but 11 of the original 20 toilets have been “cashed out” to provide the funds to bail a private bike-share program out of debt.

With a cool billion in potential revenue in the original deal, you might rightly assume that a quarter-per-poo charge is a drop in the bucket. Toronto street furniture manager Carly Hinks calls the fee “nominal.” Even assuming 10,000 flushes a year (the tossed-around estimate), at 25 cents per use, that’s $2,500 – less than half the estimated annual cleaning and maintenance costs. So why charge at all?

The real value of those quarters, Elyse Parker told me, is that they deter vandalism. “For whatever reason,” she said, “it makes a difference. It’s just one of those human things.” Chris Bateman, though, likens toilet fees to “a bouncer on a front door.” And he doesn’t mean it in a good way. “It’s more of a way of telling people that maybe certain standards are expected in this washroom, or only a certain kind of person is allowed to use it.”

Paying for toilet access falls under the broad scope of an urban planning principle called “crime prevention through environmental design.” Other such design measures related to public bathrooms include stainless-steel or resin toilets (which can’t be broken), having no toilet seats (which can be removed or smashed), installing metal mirrors (smashing, natch), having no mirrors (to prevent gay sex), prohibiting paper towels (which can be set on fire, though equally flammable toilet paper gets to stay), removing in-stall shelves (which apparently aid drug users), and installing UV black lights (whose bluish gloom, I’m told, prevents people from seeing their veins to inject drugs – must be hell for lipstick application, too).

These fixes make it tricky to vandalize a bathroom. They also make it tricky to actually use one. This goes beyond whininess over the discomfort of cold steel rims and preferring paper towels to air dryers. In the quest to keep people from doing what they aren’t supposed to in bathrooms, Ramster argues, some crime prevention design is stopping people from doing what they actually need to: using the toilet.

I’ve been trying to answer a question here: does the quarter charge to use the Harbourfront automated public toilet keep it cleaner? But let’s forget that query for a moment and consider something perhaps more important: is a quarter affordable for the people who must need these toilets most? Sure, homeless advocate Doug Johnson Hatlem says. People on the street can come up with a quarter. But most won’t waste it on going to the bathroom.

“If they are trying to scrape together eight bucks to buy a bottle of wine, for instance,” says Hatlem, “they are not going to use one of those quarters to go to the bathroom inside.” And it’s not just one quarter either. A middle-aged man typically defecates once a day and urinates six to eight times. Using the automated public toilet religiously could cost a homeless person 67 dollars a month. In recognition of that potential hardship, the City of Toronto instituted a program in 2010 that allows its outreach workers to give away free tokens for the automated public bathrooms so people don’t need to spend money.

But when I asked Elyse Parker about the program, she admitted there hadn’t been a lot of uptake − likely, she suspected, because of the locations of the toilets. The second APT was built seven kilometres east of the one at Harbourfront, on Lakeshore Boulevard in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood: which placed both toilets in areas Parker suggested are not particularly well-travelled by the homeless. The third one was built almost five kilometres west, also on Lakeshore Boulevard.

Hatlem says there are definitely street people around Harbourfront (Bateman and I were approached by a man panhandling while we chatted outside the Queens Quay APT), but in all his time in Toronto (he left in 2013) he’d never heard of the token program. Neither had Karen Eacott, an outreach worker with Covenant House Toronto, Canada’s largest youth shelter, nor had two other people working with homeless youths and adults in Toronto I contacted – though city spokesperson Cheryl San Juan confirms that the tokens are still provided to vulnerable populations through city social services.

So if the homeless and poor aren’t using the automated public toilets, and have difficulty accessing bathrooms in cafés, stores, and restaurants, where, exactly, are they going when they need to go?

Anywhere they must. “We have certainly seen lots of places where there is defecation in downtown Toronto,” says Hatlem. Eacott has frequently seen it, too. “You can kind of guess whether it’s human or not,” she told me.

Toronto’s defecation problem is something of an open secret, as it is in San Francisco and many other major cities. While there’s a burgeoning international awareness of the problem of on-street defecation in the global south and in developing nations, in the developed world we mostly either don’t see it or pretend it’s not happening.

Sanitation activist and sociologist, Abigail Brown says people should quit kidding themselves. “We have it,” she says bluntly. “In cities everywhere.”

books@nowtoronto.com | @lezlielowe

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