It is a plight familiar to New York City’s nearly nine million residents, and to the millions of tourists who visit each year: nowhere to go to the restroom in a city where public facilities are few and hard to find.
But in recent years, some people — frustrated over being forced to scramble to hunt down, or pay for, a necessity they believe should be free — have tried to make the ordeal easier.
Last July, Teddy Siegel, an opera student at Mannes School of Music at the New School in Manhattan, was shopping with her sister in Times Square when she began to panic: Far from home, she needed a restroom desperately. Several businesses turned her away, saying their bathrooms were for employees only.
She was on the verge of disaster,Ms. Siegel, 23, said.
In a booklet published in 2020, Julie Chou, an architect, and Kevin Gurley and Boyeong Hong, urban planners, wrote that New York City had about 1,100 publicly accessible restrooms and mapped each one. The number, they wrote, had not increased significantly in more than 40 years, leaving the city in a “public bathroom crisis.”
Ms. Siegel finally found relief for her personal bathroom crisis at a McDonald’s, but only after paying for a bottle of water.
At her sister’s urging, Ms. Siegel, who lives in Manhattan, created a TikTok account to document New York’s publicly accessible bathrooms, posting a video of the McDonald’s where she had found one and making the account public for others who might find such information helpful.
Plenty of people apparently did. As of this past week, the McDonald’s video had been viewed 15,000 times, and the TikTok account, @got2gonyc, had 109,000 followers.
In addition to posting information about the restrooms she finds, Ms. Siegel uses the account to share locations submitted by others, as wellas codes for unlocking doors where needed. She also created a Google Map for adding restroom addresses in real time. She said she gets hundreds of submissions a week.
Alanna Ramirez, who grew up in New York and manages a brewery in the Bronx, follows Ms. Siegel’s TikTok account, has shared Ms. Siegel’s Google Map with friends and recently submitted a bathroom location. She said that she and her friends had been hoping for years that someone would create such a resource.
“When I saw the TikTok, I sent it to everybody,” Ms. Ramirez, 26, said. “I was, like, it’s finally happening.”
Wansoo Im, an associate professor at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, was inspired to create his own crowdsourced map, New York Restrooms, by the difficulty he encounteredduring a visit to the city with his family in 2004.
Almost two decades after he first published the map, Dr. Im, 56, says he still hears from people who use it. “I still get emails, time to time, how much they appreciate it,” he said.
Alice Xiao, who works in the technology industry, recently started a map app, Toodle Loo, that features crowdsourced bathroom locations in New York and other cities. She said she took pride in making bathrooms easier to find.
“There is power in community and sharing,” Ms. Xiao, 26, said.
For some people, restroom maps and lists are a necessity. In New York State, the Crohn’s and Colitis Fairness Act requires businesses to let those with certain medical conditions use employee-only restrooms if public restrooms are unavailable.
Tina Aswani Omprakash, 38, has Crohn’s disease and lives with a permanent ileostomy bag. Nonetheless, she said she has at times had trouble persuading New York City business owners to let her use their restrooms.
Ms. Omprakash, the president of the South Asian IBD Alliance, an organization focused on inflammatory bowel disease that is made up of patients and clinicians of South Asian descent, was pleased when the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation introduced a bathroom-finding app, We Can’t Wait, this year. The app lists businesses across the country that let foundation members use their bathrooms; it also lets users comment about cleanliness and other bathroom qualities.
“I was floored,” Ms. Omprakash said of the app, which she has used in New York, where she lives, and Florida, when she was on vacation.
While online sources appear to be the most popular means of collecting and sharing information about bathroom locations and codes, there is also Facility Magazine, a small print publication about toilets and bathrooms that has put out two issues since 2019.
The magazine also posts a list of bathrooms in New York and other cities on its website, sometimes with door-access codes. It also shares codes submitted by users on its Twitter account and participated in an art show at the Miriam Gallery in Brooklyn last December (attendees were invited to write bathroom codes on a large sheet of paper).
Erin Sheehy, the magazine’s editor in chief and co-founder, said that some people may frown at the sharing of access codes to restrooms run by private businesses but that she hopes lists like Facility’s will cause people to think about whether it should be so hard to find a restroom.
“You have to really question — why do you have to resort to something that feels mischievous to take care of this basic need?” said Ms. Sheehy, 34, who has also done freelance copy-editing for T magazine. “Why have we accepted this paradigm where you need to buy something in order to use the bathroom?”
Ms. Siegel hopes that her TikTok account also brings more attention to the lack of easily available restrooms in the city, while at the same time making it less difficult to find those that do exist.
“I feel like it’s just a wake-up call for New York City that it’s not acceptable to monetize bathrooms,” she said.