Terrence McNally, Potty Talk 1: Nature Calls – November 14, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

It’s time to face the issue and fix it

How Arcata’s public restroom issue connects to the national, and now international #Occupy movement is beyond me. It seems doubtful that Goldman Sachs’ corporate shell games leave A-town without a pot to piss in.

But not only is a public restroom an idea whose time has come… it came a long time ago and comes every time a visitor or resident needs to go downtown. It’s the most natural problem in the world and one that an otherwise problem solving Arcata hasn’t answered.

Things have never been better in Arcata in a bunch of ways and the works instituted by good folks decades ago appear to all be coming to fruition right now. Decades of debate and struggle over issues like Samoa Boulevard’s fugliness, H Street’s pencil-thin sidewalks and car traffic-versus-event use on the Plaza have been fixed all within the last few months.

Arcata’s forests and marshes continue to expand thanks to the deliberate planning of residents and government decades ago and the successful execution by current staffers. Surrounded at its borders by proof of broken governments, Arcata’s a comparative island of healthy politics in action these days.

But nature continues to call.

Occupy Arcata can at least be credited with dragging the issue back out. No, the U.S. Constitution does not provide the right for people to have access to a restroom. But not doing so makes A-town a bad host. And it doesn’t matter if they’re tourists dropping their cash on downtown businesses or travelers who don’t. The fact that visitors can often be witnessed… at times pantomiming desperation… in search of a loo just ain’t right.

Having worked on the Plaza Level of Jacoby’s Storehouse for a dozen years, I see them every day. They come off the Plaza in need. While it’s an interruption from one’s workday to get up and get them access to Jacoby’s much-abused single seater… people have got to go. Sending them to the City’s advertised daytime, out-of-the-way public restrooms blocks further seems mighty mean.

Hopefully, the City Council’s soon-to-be-formed subcommittee can get through the multiple challenges of providing relief. Prior attempts have failed – and for good reason. There are major obstacles toward creating a safe and secure… a clean place… that is most-certainly going to be under continual vandalism and graffiti attacks. Mentally ill and stupid people like to do terrible things to restrooms. There are public health issues to tackle, as well as the safety of the folks who have to clean the damn thing. However, it can be done.

When council last seriously took up the issue a half decade ago, Public Works studied for months before coming up with a design. It wasn’t perfect. No public restroom will be. But it was a functional concept. Adjacent to City Hall and close enough to the Arcata Police Department to afford safety, the design appeared to be, if not bombproof, at least well built and able to handle a hosedown. It was even green, collecting rain water for its plumbing.

However, months of wrangling by a dysfunctional council and a Quixotic pursuit of a magical robotic toilet by then-councilmember Dave Meserve (the ridiculously expensive Exeloo made in New Zealand and maintained only through the Bay Area) unraveled the solid plans of City staff. Council sat and sat. Arcata is still holding onto a nagging problem after a political failure.

It will cost money and the City has little. Councilmember Susan Ornelas’s idea for us… the citizens of this town… to kick down five bucks on our water bill is totally reasonable. Private-public partnerships make sense as well as much of the burden is already shouldered by downtown businesses. And maybe Arcata can dust off that five-year old plan and take another look. A council subcommittee can be successful in putting their good minds together for an important cause. And it’s certainly a problem that’s not going away.

We are a good, beautiful town that should be proud to welcome visitors. And we should make their stays as comfortable as possible while they’re here.

Terrence McNally

Arcata Photo Studio