Black-and-white photos of old New York decorate the walls. Soothing classical music is piped in, along with heat on chilly days. A full-time attendant waits just outside for touch-ups and emergencies.
If you must go, there may be no better public restroom in all of New York City than the five-star experience now available in the heart of Manhattan.
“It’s very elegant,” marveled Yolanda Reyes, 53, a cleaning woman from Brooklyn who made a pit stop after getting off the subway. “It made me feel very comfortable.”
The well-appointed bathroom, which reopened recently after a 2 1/2-year makeover that cost nearly $600,000, sits in Greeley Square Park, on Broadway between 32nd and 33rd streets, a quick dash from a major subway stop and the New York terminus of the PATH train, which connects Manhattan to New Jersey.
Finding a decent place to go after long commutes and big cups of coffee has never been easy in New York. Public bathrooms in subway stations, if there are any, or transportation hubs are often dark, grimy and cramped. Toilets get clogged, and toilet paper and soap go missing. The worst are to be avoided at all costs.
But a new breed of commuter bathrooms is coming to the rescue.
Amtrak has spiffed up tired old restrooms at Pennsylvania Station, the busiest transportation hub in the Western Hemisphere, with new terrazzo floors, sleek gray stalls and hands-free faucets and soap dispensers. In the men’s room, there is a row of urinals by Toto, a luxury brand that is used in the bathrooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Mandarin Oriental.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is overhauling 200 bathrooms in airports and transit centers as part of a larger effort to improve amenities for travelers.
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A second-floor women’s bathroom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal has black granite counters, bright lights and mirrors that are perfect for primping. Attendants clean and move the lines along. A new family bathroom with a diaper-changing station has been added nearby.
Public bathrooms inside Jamaica Station, in Queens, for the AirTrain to Kennedy International Airport recently reopened after a gut renovation, with new amenities such as stainless steel faucets shaped like airplanes (with sloping handles for wings) and a mural of the Manhattan skyline.
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“There is no reason for bathrooms to be unattractive,” said Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority, explaining that “bathrooms are frequently at the top of the list of what passengers focus on.”
The Port Authority has also stepped up bathroom cleanings, and rolled out a system for monitoring feedback from bathroom users. The bathroom improvements will cost more than $118 million, of which about 20% is being financed directly by the authority, and the rest by private companies that are contracted to run its facilities.
Of course, New York City is still a long way from being bathroom-friendly.
Take the sprawling subway system, which has too few bathrooms for comfort. An informal look at subway bathrooms last year by The New York Times found that 51 of the 472 stations had working bathrooms. And some were — to be blunt — gross.
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subways, said all bathrooms are cleaned daily. In addition, bathrooms in two dozen stations have recently been targeted for deep cleanings and overdue repairs, and upgraded with “vandal-proof fixtures” such as bolted-in toilet paper holders and soap dispensers.
Now, the bathroom outside the PATH station has raised the bar for commuter bathrooms even more.
Inside the forest-green kiosk is a bright, airy space that feels surprisingly roomy for just 150 square feet. There are four unisex stalls, a long, communal sink with two faucets and even a skylight — covered with opaque glass to prevent workers in nearby towers from seeing too much.
Luxe touches like the rotating seat covers, seasonal plants and classical music were copied from nearby Bryant Park, which has long had the Tiffany’s of public restrooms.
The Greeley Square bathroom, though smaller than Bryant Park’s, cost more than twice as much to fix up because of the plumbing, electrical and construction challenges of a bathroom in a curbside kiosk above subway and train lines.
“We cater to everybody from CEOs to homeless people,” said Dan Biederman, who oversees the bathrooms in both locations as president of the 34th Street Partnership and executive director of the Bryant Park Corporation. “It’s one of the few places where people interact. It’s common space.”
The Greeley Square bathroom is open seven days a week, and staffed by an attendant at all times. Its annual operating budget of $245,000 will be paid by the partnership.
“This helps me so much,” said Philip Valoso, a food delivery worker who ran inside the other morning after asking the attendant to watch his electric bike. Usually, he said, he has to hold it between deliveries.
The bathroom has been a work in progress since it was built in 1999 in Greeley Square Park, a popular spot with tables, chairs and a statue of the park’s namesake, influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley.
It was one of the city’s first public pay toilets, retrofitted with a Swedish-made unit that was so high-tech it required detailed instructions to be posted in seven languages.
But the bathroom, which had a self-cleaning, rotating floor, had to be closed whenever a part broke. Replacements had to be shipped from Sweden. “The entire floor rotated — that was just asking for complications,” recalled Biederman. “We gave up on the idea of an automated public toilet.”
By 2010, it had become a free public restroom with standard toilets. But still, there were problems. The metal walls of the kiosk were so thin that the pipes froze and burst, flooding the bathroom. Drug users holed up inside. After a man overdosed, the bathroom was closed in 2017.
Since then, commuters like Joseph Rodrigues have been eagerly awaiting its return.
“I need it. People need it,” said Rodrigues, 51, a shoeshine worker who says he has bought french fries at McDonald’s just to use the bathroom. “New York does not have enough public bathrooms.”
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It even impressed Joe Dee, 68, a real estate executive who tries to avoid public restrooms. Dee grew up in the city and was scarred by the times he tried to use subway bathrooms that were dirty and taken over by transients.
But as Dee has gotten up in years, his bathroom needs have increased, too.
“This is beautiful,” Dee said. “I love it. As an older man, I love it even more.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .