Relief in sight
Rong Xiaoqing, New York
When the Republicans fly in from around the US to hold their national convention in Manhattan at the end of the month, they may be planning on a spot of sightseeing and shopping to break up the intensity of the politics. But like any visitor to New York City, they had better be prepared for one major challenge - where to find a public toilet.
Sometimes, the city that never sleeps seems like it must be a city that never pees. While cities of comparable size, or smaller, in Europe and Asia have hundreds of public toilets, New York's streets have virtually none.
Once, there may have been hundreds in subway stations, but now most are permanently closed, and those that remain are only opened when a traveller can persuade a transit worker that they really are facing a personal emergency. Even the toilets in New York's public parks are locked or badly neglected.
Many people have been reduced to using various tactics to get into a toilet in restaurants, bars and bookstores in defiance of the 'only for customers' signs. These can vary from the intimidating, 'don't mess with me, I'm using your bathroom' expression, to pretending to order, and tearful pleading. Even then, it often does not work. For example, a McDonald's in Chinatown charges non-customers US$1 to use its facilities. At Starbucks coffee houses, whose toilets have even been mentioned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as one choice for the desperate, getting access often means negotiating with staff over the key - which can cost the faint-hearted a gourmet coffee at the very least.
For many years, successive city administrations have argued over the problem. In the 1970s and 1980s, the high crime rate, a budget crisis and a rampant drug problem helped to conspire to foil any progress. More recently, bureaucratic turf wars and a funding gap have got in the way.
But now there may finally be signs of relief. Recently, four new toilets opened in the subway station under Times Square, funded by the developer of a new office tower as part of the deal with the authorities. They come complete with an attendant who buzzes people in and out from an office alongside. And, Mr Bloomberg may be about to take the next step, with a plan to franchise the city's newsstands and bus shelters for advertising. Part of the estimated US$1 billion revenue would be used for 20 toilets on the busiest streets.
Still, the plan could get flushed away by a lawsuit filed by a group of newsstand owners who allege that the city is effectively taking away their property. Another obstacle should not be a surprise. After all, this is a city where the musical Urinetown, a story about a malevolent corporation forcing people to pay to pee, was a big hit.