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Bittersweet relief in city’s doorless, unisex restrooms

Scenes from a city, beginning anew

In Balduck Park on Detroit’s east side, the city has been experimenting with a new type of public restroom that officials say is safer for park patrons and virtually indestructible. It features two unisex rooms with self-composting toilets. But there’s a downside, even for those folks desperate for relief: It offers virtually no privacy. There are no doors, and it has none of the accoutrements Americans have come to expect in 21st-Century restrooms, such as water faucets, sinks, hand dryers, mirrors or soap. A roll of toilet paper hangs on the wall opposite the toilet.

Part of a $2.7-million renovation of Balduck, the restroom does have a solar panel that runs the lights at night. It was designed by the staff of Brad Dick, director of the city’s General Services Department. Dick claims the restroom is both vandal-proof and super secure. “If a tornado comes along, you could run in there and be relatively safe, unless you get sucked in the toilet,” he said. The restroom has an outer wall, but inside that are open spaces that lead to the two rooms. The toilets – and anyone using them – are in plain view. And there is no way to know the toilet is being used unless you look into the rooms where they sit.

Bridge emailed photos of the restroom to Robert Brubaker, program manager of the Maryland-based American Restroom Association. While he commended city officials for providing park goers with a bathroom, no matter how rudimentary, Brubaker said he has never seen a public restroom without some sort of barrier between the public and the toilet. “It doesn’t seem to have any privacy,” Brubaker said. “I would have trouble endorsing it. There’s a thin line between privacy and security.”

Dick counters that the new restroom has proven to be a good solution to the vandalism and scrapping that frequently ruins other facilities in Detroit, sometimes even before they open to the public. The doorless approach also protects children from becoming trapped or a victim of crime, he said.
So far, the Balduck facility has passed the test: Now in it’s second season, it has no structural damage. The model is scheduled to be installed in other renovated Detroit parks.

I experimented with the experimental restroom. It was cleaner than any city restroom I have ever used. Standing there, I tried to think about the composting, and how I was contributing, in a small way, to the future well-being of a city garden. But I was always conscious that someone could unwittingly walk in on me. Conclusion: Users may need to employ the buddy system to ward off embarrassing moments.

“Most people are like, ‘Ugh, it’s not a nice bathroom,’” Dick acknowledged. “It’s not nice. It’s not pretty.” But think of the upside, he said. “It’s better than someone just whipping it out in public and going behind a tree.”

-- Bill McGraw

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