The Necessary: Things Downtown Needs: A Pharmacy, a Grocery—And One Public Toilet

Revival has presented downtown Knoxville with a better array of bladder-filling options than anywhere I've ever visited, with the possible exception of New Orleans. But with that fact comes a delicate irony. Downtown still lacks public facilities. A few months ago, the folks at Union Ave Books weren't sure how to respond when a tour bus stopped in front of their building, and a procession of tourists got out and came in their store just to use their bathroom. None of them bought anything at all, and didn't have much to say, but they made themselves right at home, and flushed their toilet several times.

That's an extreme case, but signs all over downtown—"Restrooms for customers only"—suggest it's a problem everywhere. One recent Sunday, I saw a fellow exiting one of the porta-potties at the construction site on Church Street. He did not look to me like a construction worker. Worse, last Friday afternoon, in broad daylight, I saw an otherwise respectable-looking middle-aged gent peeing on the side of a corner building on West Jackson. Appalling, you might say. But what's his next best option? Everybody with a toilet is waving him away.

During the overhaul of Market Square 10 years ago, everything got better, except for one fact. Since the 1800s, Market Square had always offered the simple amenity of public toilets, first in the Market House. By 1915, in fact, the big building's women's room especially was touted as sort of a national model for hygiene and comfort. When the whole building was torn down in 1960—the auditorium, the market stalls, the offices, everything—the city rebuilt the one essential part of the Market House, the public toilet. It was a little free-standing brick outhouse of sorts near what's now the stage. But that was removed during the grand redo in 2004, and at public charrettes, its removal raised lots of vocal concern. Officials promised repeatedly that they'd compensate for removing it by including some public restrooms in the new parking garage. It was a couple of years before I noticed that that little detail was never tended to.

Today, most of the downtown public toilets I know of are in government buildings that are mostly closed at night and on weekends. I don't know how much of Knox County's library budget goes toward the water bills and cleaning involved in the maintenance of bathrooms for random downtown pedestrians, but I'm sure it's more than it should be. And, of course, the library's never open after 8:30 p.m., and on weekends it closes at 5.

There are a few public toilets on the outer fringes of downtown, some on the other side of World's Fair Park, and some down on Volunteer Landing, though in my experience they're often locked. There are indeed well-kept public toilets in the KAT station, over on East Church. It's open until after 11 p.m., but it's a long way from most walking routes.

So it's no surprise we often find ourselves stepping around yellow puddles on Gay Street. We can't always assume they were left by a condo-dweller's Great Dane.

How do other places deal with it? Several other cities have to contend with the same problems we do concerning homelessness, vandals, and sexual opportunists. In New Orleans, they're multiplied by a factor of about 12. But somehow they're able to provide basic public toilets. Sometimes they're clean, sometimes they're not, but they're toilets, and anybody who's spent a lot of time walking around the City that Care Forgot has found reason to care at least about that, and be grateful.

Almost all European cities have public urinals, and free-market Americans are shocked that they cost money. Western European nations give their citizens free health care and free college education, but when it comes to taking a leak, you pay, mate. That's capitalism. And it makes sense. We prefer to ignore the basic principles of supply and demand, in this one regard. Public toilets aren't free to operate, they shouldn't be free to use. But Americans think government should pay for our evacuations. When we need to go to the bathroom, our inner Commie emerges.

For now, in restaurants and shops, I'd suggest a tip jar is in order, as a subtle reminder. I think a dollar per flush is a reasonable suggested donation. There have been many times I would happily have paid more, rather than encounter one more Customers Only sign.

And I don't know whether you know this about another charming city, but San Francisco has long struggled with the secret heartbreak of a public-urination habit. The City by the Bay has always offered public facilities. Its 1990s experiment with a couple dozen automated, "self-cleaning" public toilets have yielded mixed results. They're wonderful and impressive to visitors until they're not, and then they're awful. Worse, they don't seem to have offered much discouragement to the preferences of a free people to pee in the street.

Now San Francisco's trying something new. If people want to urinate in public, they can, thanks to the scientists at Oakland's Hyphae Design Lab. Described as a "rapidly deployable, reconfigurable public urinal and sink," the PPlanter incorporates a urinal with a low privacy fence that provides for the basics of decency but discourages the usual public-toilet hijinks concerning controlled substances and risky intimacies. Best of all, it's pretty. The public toilet is part of the ecosystem of a bamboo garden. Through a complicated mini-sewer, the results end up watering the bamboo, and there's hardly any smell. Bacteria breaks it all down.

A patented disposable funnel device allows women to urinate standing up, too. One more glass ceiling of gender inequality, shattered.

A test run was successful, and San Francisco has reportedly ordered a permanent PPlanter, with the addition of a composting toilet.

It could work here. But where to put them? I know. Every surface parking lot should be required to be improved with a bamboo-garden urinal.