Give ’Em Somewhere to Go

The Star Wars–esque modular bathrooms have been kissed by a gentle coat of rust, from their corrugated metal facades to their tinny hand dryers.

When you approach someone in this city while holding a notepad and tell them that you’re writing a column about public bathrooms, they usually laugh and then answer any question you throw at them.

This is because New Yorkers understand how precious and rare a good public restroom is—worthy of discussion and scrutiny, praise and damnation. As the author of the Porcelain New York column for the website Hell Gate, I have toured pristine facilities overseen by saints and neglected Porta Potties filled with unspeakable horrors, all in the hope that more public discourse will lead to more public privies and thus more public dignity. Some locations are tougher to sample than others. Few exiting an MTA bathroom have time to chat about the smell or the soap dispensers. (“Nice having you look at me,” one elderly man quips as I try to ask him about the new lavatories in the Jay Street–MetroTech station.)

On a sunny Sunday in June at Rockaway Beach, the people are in a generous mood and want to rave about the modular restrooms installed high above the dunes.

“It looks like something from Star Wars,” Nora Bourdin tells me as she left the facilities at Beach 115th Street. Bourdin was visiting with her aunt Maryse, who was in town from Chicago, sporting Dior sunglasses and a thick French accent.

“They look like a camping car,” Maryse says approvingly, in her thick French accent. “They are very clean, très, très, good.”

When the structures were installed ten years ago, some members of the community (homeowners, mostly) complained that the city had “betrayed” them—the modernistic buildings blocked the view and looked funny against their suburban bungalow aesthetic.

“As for locals, they didn’t want them because they attract people. And sometimes they’re not the best types of people,” Tom Nanni says as he walks his dog Sammy down the boardwalk.

The ground beneath our feet was once itself a topic of intense controversy. After Superstorm Sandy wiped out the old wooden boardwalk, the city announced that it would not replace the original tropical hardwood with more of the same. Rockaway Beach’s paper of record, The Wave, reported at the time that one resident “firmly stated that he will not refer to the new concrete structure as a boardwalk but as a concretewalk.”

Eventually, people accepted the premise that ripping out trees from the rainforest so they can be installed thousands of miles away next to an ocean, only to be swept away by another storm in a few decades, was unwise. Plus, the concrete provides a much smoother surface on which to bike, rollerblade, and run. The “concretewalk” is now more or less beloved.

Nanni, who says he has lived in the Rockaways for fifteen years, explains that the modular bathrooms are now just another part of the landscape, if only because of the laws of nature that govern us all.

“People need a place to go take a piss or a shit. If you don’t give them a place, people will do it straight off the boardwalk, in broad daylight,” Nanni says. “Give ’em somewhere to go. Keep it clean. Hose it out.”

IN A TOWN where even modest public bathrooms cost upwards of $1 million to build, if they aren’t NIMBY’d to death first (don’t forget about the fifteen pay-per-use public toilets that have been sitting in a warehouse since 2006, waiting to be deployed), the New York City Parks Beach Restoration Modules are a marvel of speedy implementation.

Sandy hit New York City in late October 2012, killed forty-four New Yorkers, cut off power in lower Manhattan for the better part of a week, and inflicted billions of dollars of damage. The modules were part of a political pledge by the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the city would not retreat from the waterfront.

Modular beach bathroom building.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the Bloomberg administration pledged to restore the city’s beaches in time for the following summer. These modular buildings, which are used as public bathrooms, lifeguard stations, and maintenance offices, were part of that effort. Sean C Suchara

Designed by Garrison Architects in six weeks, the thirty-seven units, spread across fifteen public beach sites in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, had to be ready for beach-hungry New Yorkers by Memorial Day. And while that target wasn’t quite met, most were in place by the end of that first summer, one year after the second most powerful storm in American history hit our shores.

The restrooms, lifeguard shacks, and maintenance offices have a modular design—they were manufactured in a factory and assembled on site—and their arrival was supposed to herald the adoption of the practice in New York, where it would make the construction of desperately needed housing faster and more affordable. With some notable exceptions, like the SHoP Architects–designed, thirty-two-story modular building next to Barclays Center, which is the tallest such building in the world, modular still hasn’t really taken off; building housing in the Big Onion is still as difficult and costly as ever. A development with 168 modular units in East New York, all of them qualifying as “affordable,” has been in the works since 2018, but is somehow still mired in the planning process.

A marvel of speedy implementation, the modules serve as a test case for prefabrication in New York. The stainless-steel units were made at a Northeastern Pennsylvania factory and delivered to Newark, where they were strapped to barges and hauled out to beaches across Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Sean C Suchara

And while the modular units on Rockaway Beach, like those at Coney Island and other beaches, are raised to dodge the swells of the next five-hundred-year storm, they are showing their age and proximity to salt air. They have been kissed by a gentle coat of rust, from their corrugated metal facades to their tinny hand dryers. Some of the legs of the bathroom stalls are now an alarming bright orange. A cartoonish mix of pipes and wires protruded from the undercarriage of one of the lifeguard stands we visited. (“Horrible, bro,” one lifeguard says, when I ask how his station was holding up. “Just look at this.”)

But the cumulative effect is like gray hairs on the snout of a beloved, wizened, salty dog. The cross-ventilation systems in the modules mean that a sea breeze keeps things in the restrooms exceedingly fresh. The outdoor, exposed walkway between the men’s and women’s rooms makes the structures feel like a classy beach house—squint a bit at the whole thing and you’re on some crypto millionaire’s Fire Island retreat.

There are windows on each side looking out toward the sea, and people on the boardwalk can catch a glimpse into the bathrooms, which I discovered when, deep in critical appraisal, I was surprised to notice a little girl waving at me from inside.

IF YOU’VE VISITED the Rockaways recently, you’ve probably noticed the giant heaps of earth and boulders sitting next to backhoes and heavy machinery. Or you’re pissed because your favorite section of the beach is closed. It’s all part of a multiyear, $336 million U.S. Army Corps project to keep the sand where it is, so we can keep playing in it.

Last year, the Army Corps announced a $52 billion flood protection plan for the New York–New Jersey region. This plan manages to be both exhausting in size and scale and also hilariously deranged. Oh, you’re just gonna slap up some twelve-foot walls all along the city’s coastline? Peak late-Anthropocene brain.

Elevation of a typical bathroom showing how it would sit dry above a potential flood.

The modules are different sizes (they vary from forty-seven to fifty-seven feet in length), but they are all made from the same materials (corrugated metal on the exteriors, green glass tile and colorful ceramic on the inside). Installed mostly in pairs, they are hoisted up on concrete legs above the 500-year flood level. Sean C Suchara

Yes, our modular beach urinals have been built high enough to avoid total destruction by another massive storm surge. But our public officials refuse to apply Sandy’s hard lessons to New York’s mounting infrastructural crises, which cry out for bold, climate-minded solutions. (The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is falling apart! We’re spending billions to carefully elevate Lower Manhattan while leaving its congested, noxious highway untouched!) Patching up a highway or throwing up a wall—a giant wall; what a clumsy, expensive metaphor!—requires no imagination and no courage.

Meanwhile, we have made good on Bloomberg’s promise (Bloomberg’s curse?), and waterfront development continues—including a 116-acre, $1 billion “net-zero emissions community” right on the beachfront, from Beach Forty-Fourth Street to Beach Thirtieth.

Around Beach Sixty-Seventh Street, I start chatting with Aitana, who tells me she fell in love with the Rockaways during the pandemic. “I’m in the process of maybe getting a spot out here. But I wouldn’t live here. It’s just more of an investment,” she says.

Aitana especially appreciates how the boardwalk connects different communities on the peninsula.

“This is a unifying structure that, no matter where you live, you can access and do your sports or whatever. And it doesn’t matter where or what socioeconomic class you’re from,” she says.

The bungalow she’s eyeing was damaged during Sandy, but Aitana says she doesn’t plan on raising it up on stilts. “You can’t really control what might happen,” she ventures. “I’m just, you know, I don’t know. It’s hedging my bets, I guess.”

Christopher Robbins is a co-owner of the website Hell Gate. He firmly believes that every car should have an internal horn that is extremely loud.