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Fri, May. 15th, 2009 08:55 am
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.

38CommentReplyFlag

contentlove
contentlove
Content Love Knowles
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 01:07 pm (UTC)

Gosh, you're right! And it's unique to the US, too. No such thing as a gigantic massive gap between the haves and the have nots in, say, India, right!


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC)

I missed the bit where he said only the US had a gap between the haves and have-nots. Maybe Americans should be less paranoid and defensive?


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 01:08 pm (UTC)

There's a catch-22 with public buildings. If the authorities do them up to look nice, they're accused of wasting taxpayers' money on cosmetic things; if the money isn't spent, they're described as 'run down', 'shabby', etc and held up as proof of why everything the state does is rubbish.


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desant012
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Fri, May. 15th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)

I completely agree. One of the things New York lacks are public spaces ... -any- public spaces. The few public parks we have Bloomberg is trying to give away to his private developer buddies (think Union Square, if you can call that a park).

I'm not sure if you follow the local politics here, but there was a recent uproar over Bloomberg's plan to charge 50% income rent to -homeless families- living in shelters who are working and saving up for an apartment of their own. Charging rent ... to homeless people ... struggling to get out of poverty. That's turn-of-the-century New York right there for you.

Bloomberg has been an absolute disaster on this city in regards to public services, public spaces, and equitable treatment of all the people who live here. Of course I wonder why the Democrats haven't even fielded a candidate for this guy yet ... (and why they put out the most absolutely unqualified candidate possible who had absolutely no chance of winning whatsoever the last time Bloomberg ran).

Anyway, many of us have noticed these things here.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)

Oh, and I just made this connection: at the same time Bloomberg decided to charge 50% rent to the homeless families, he placed one of his Wall Street banker friends as the head of the New York public housing authority. A man who wants to convert public housing into condo developments. Wonderful, right?

Of course there are a lot of people who like Bloomberg specifically for shit like that... mostly whatever knuckleheads are left inin Bay Ridge, and the fat-head bankers who flooded here during the whole banking boom this decade. Good crowd, huh.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

theholyinnocent
don draper's gin-soaked conscience
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 01:45 pm (UTC)

The inequalities are even more glaring when you see subway stations in other NYC boroughs, in less prosperous sections of the city: Many of them are horribly run down to the point of being unsafe for commuters (e.g., broken, crumbling staircases, holes in walls and ceilings, peeling lead-based paint).


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC)
Masstransiscope

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/01/arts/design/01zoet.html

Most of the tile work is new -- done in the last 10 years or so. I agree, it's great. And, yes, it's a shame the transit system as a whole is broken. One of the older works is the recently rehabbed Masstransiscope.

"He wanted to create a mass-transit version of a zoetrope, the earliest motion picture device, by constructing a long slitted light box alongside a subway track with a series of paintings inside so that, when a train passed, riders experienced the illusion that the painting was moving."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Masstransiscope

There is actually something like that in the tunnel taking the Narita Express out of the airport and towards Tokyo.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand



(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC)

The problem, I think, is society's understanding of free will. We have yet to fully grasp the fact of our being accidental products of our environment, and that one person is not more worthy of success than another. Once that is understood by the majority, progressive taxation would be adopted fully.


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virginiarappe
virginiarappe
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)

Hard not to agree about how run down the NYC subways are, but I'd sooner blame too little free enterprise in the subway than too much. Who are the MTA's competitors again? They don't exactly have much incentive to keep things in order when the city has given them exclusive control over the underground.

But head to midtown and you'll find plenty of well-kept, freely available public spaces inside and around all the commercial skyscrapers there. The city exacts these spaces from nearly every new development, probably with good intentions, but they sit there completely underused. Which is hardly surprising, considering their location.


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desant012
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Fri, May. 15th, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)

Public services in the hands of private entities are counterproductive in that a private entity has absolutely no interest in serving the public good beyond the minimum it takes to earn the most money.

Coupled with this is the fact that a private business or corporation has a -legal obligation- to shareholders to 1) minimze costs and 2) externalize costs as much as humanly possible. As in, the least service possible that will make the most money.

Do people really believe in that whole "private for public good" crap anymore? I thought this whole crisis on our hands was evidence that it just doesn't work.


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ghostsick
Zach
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)

Image and video hosting by TinyPic


Are there public toilets in London's underground system? Tokyo's? The rest of Europe?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)

Ha ha ha, nice picture!

Tokyo's public transport does have toilets, but the best toilet solution there is a private one: every convenience store has a toilet, and they're open 24/7.


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nightspore
nightspore
Muster Mark
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)

One thing about New York is that the MTA runs 24/7, which is, if not unique, extremely rare. Maintenance of a 24/7 transit system is challenging.

I believe the toilets were closed a couple of decades ago after some horrendous crimes.

Bloomberg is not helpful about getting public bathrooms available.

You should check out the "ghost station" on the West Side IRT at 91st. I don't know whether it's lit up anymore, but it was when I took the train to school every day, and I loved seeing it.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 03:09 pm (UTC)

Yeah, a 24/7 subway is a boon, and NYC is the only city I know to have it (Berlin does it weekends only, London and Tokyo not at all). It's obviously great for the nighttime economy, but some cities don't want to develop that, it seems. Or perhaps (as in Tokyo) there's lobbying from taxi drivers.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)

Momus - still my all time favourite post

http://imomus.livejournal.com/348179.html


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC)
stilles örtchen

christianef (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jujus-delivery/3533978130/)

a public toilet at a station in berlin - late 70s. for a while they had a bad rep but they're still in service and cleaner than ever. though there is a small fee now for using public toilets (...as far as I know).


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC)
Re: stilles örtchen

There was a public toilet on Notting Hill Gate station (London) until a couple of years ago (there might still be, though I haven't been there for a while). It isn't on the platform, but it is still in the station.

Stephen Parkin


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internought
internought
denial o'niall
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 07:35 pm (UTC)

There are in fact public restrooms available in a number of stations across the boroughs, as Wikipedia correctly reports, but the number has been dwindling over the past decade as the MTA has converted them one by one into storage facilities. Times Square station used to have three whose entry lock was remotely controlled by an attendant in a small booth nearby, while another attendant stood nearby to check for syringes, vomit, messes, etc. after you walked out. Seems like those were phased out not too long after the 2005 subway strike.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, May. 16th, 2009 01:39 am (UTC)

The (non?)euclidean universe at 53rd St Station is by native New Yorker Al Held.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, May. 16th, 2009 02:17 am (UTC)

Why would a 2004 decision to sell property be "wiped out" by the property bust? It may have looked a bit daft as property prices continued to rise after 2004 but should look fantastic now. If you told people you sold your house and started renting before the property market fell, people would be congratulating you. Whatever financial problems the MTA currently has, that shouldn't be one of them as you describe it.


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xchimx
xchimx
john fisch
Sat, May. 16th, 2009 02:43 am (UTC)

making public toilets available is hardly a solution. I would bet that those bathrooms were closed after they began to be used more for a place to inject heroine rather than relieve ones bladder. investing more in rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters, financial assistance to the impoverished, etc. is what we need. closing bathroom doors is just one of many inevitable consequences for the lack of social services for the poor.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, May. 16th, 2009 03:56 am (UTC)

^
well put.
I think the toilet point is only one element in a complex situation. I'm off the Myrtle stop (JMZ) we have working/open restrooms there.
Chicago subway also is 24/7 to some extent.
Momus, your point is of course well stated and correct... but ah, is to my knowledge very common knowledge. So although correct, it sounds a bit naive.
USA has a huge gap between rich/poor. We have almost no public services etc. Micheal Moore made a movie about this subject I believe dealing w our healthcare system.
it suchs. But common knowledge.
Glad you like the subway art. Pretty cool huh?


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