May 15th, 2009


Public tiles, public toilets

Think of public space -- particularly public transport -- in America and the epithet "run down" tends to spring to mind. The land of the free is all about free enterprise, not freely-available public services placed at the disposal of all citizens.

Public transport in New York City is currently in a state of crisis, with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announcing 10% fare hikes in order to deal with an ongoing financial crisis exacerbated by their 2004 decision to deal with massive debt by leasing their real estate holdings to private concerns. Any short-term gain that privatising measure brought has since been wiped out by the property bust.

Using the New York subway, though, what I notice is that there are signs that a public service ethic has existed here, and that, in places, it's even become a public service aesthetic. Tiles and mosaics are the most visible sign of civic pride in the subway system, and I've found myself photographing murals at the stations I've been using to shuttle back and forth across Manhattan. Some of them seem to be fairly recent -- the weird "smashed wall" motif has to be 1980s postmodern, for instance, and the elaborate geometric motifs at Lexington and 53rd look to be no more than a decade old. There are some nice tile images in my local station at 86th Street, too, showing peasants and pigs.

Sometimes, though, you come across reminders of how public space is problematical in the United States, and getting more so. Yesterday I found some tile signs on a subway platform designating a couple of heavily barred and bolted doors "MEN" and "WOMEN". At one point there had clearly been that most useful public facility, a public toilet, right on the subway platform. Now, though, that's a service too far for the MTA.

Why can't you have public toilets on public transport? "Oh, homeless people would live in them," said a friend. The massive inequality between rich and poor, haves and have-nots in the US -- the very thing that makes public services such a screaming need -- is also what makes public services impossible to provide here.