Rogers Park has a population of more than 55,000 yet is home to only nine public restrooms.
Of those, one is a library and another a police station, according to an interactive map by the Chicago Tribune. For the many people encompassing the neighborhood, some said Rogers Park’s lack of public restrooms creates a disparity in quality of life, especially for disenfranchised residents.
Professor David Van Zytveld, director of the Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL) at Loyola, said the problem goes well beyond Rogers Park. He pointed to the vast improvement of urban centers in Europe, such as Paris and Amsterdam, in comparison to the U.S.’ paltry public restroom resources.
To Van Zytveld, it isn’t a matter of personal responsibility.
“It’s a public health issue,” he said.
Homeless people and marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to public restrooms, Van Zytveld said. The disparity is especially great for transgender people, creating a need for gender neutral, “family” restrooms to provide a safer experience for them.
59% of transgender people surveyed by the National Center for Transgendered Equality said they avoid public restrooms for fear of — and in response to — confrontation, according to the July 2016 report.
Without plentiful access to public restrooms for residents, the neighborhood creates socio-economic barriers, Van Zytveld said.
“It’s a strange combination of being an issue that is very relevant and familiar to all of us,” he said. “At the same time, it has quickly become a very hidden issue because of where we might find ourselves in our sort of social context.”
Chicago isn’t unique in this issue. The Seattle City Auditor’s Office reported the city had 263 public bathrooms in 2019. The Seattle Time reported the number to meet the needs of the population of homeless people alone would be 225 bathrooms.
Liz Baudler has lived in Rogers Park for five years and plans to purchase a condo in the area with her partner. As a beach lover — and an avid coffee drinker — 31-year-old Baudler stressed the importance of public, open bathrooms along the neighborhood’s many beaches.
“I remember really early on when we moved here, taking a long walk kind of in the middle of the neighborhood,” Baudler, who uses she/they pronouns, said. “We had to go to the Dunkin Donuts by the Morse Redline and buy coffee that we didn’t really need to try to use the bathroom because that was really our only option.”
Jenna Rawski, a resident of Rogers Park since 2019, said her experience in the neighborhood starkly contrasts growing up in Toledo, Ohio and her years living in Las Vegas.
“There’s just a plethora of bathrooms [in Las Vegas],” Rawski, a 47-year-old nurse, said. “They just are always available no matter where you go. Nobody ever says no to that. And I don’t know how it’s managed. It never even came to light for me to think about something like this until I got here.”
Rawski said the problem extends city-wide but she found it especially prominent in Rogers Park. Beyond the lack of accessible public restrooms, she said she’s encountered many struggles finding businesses with bathrooms, even for patrons.
While adults possess the ability to control their bladder, babies and toddlers can’t always wait to find a bathroom to do their business. Emily Berkman, a mom of two children under the age of five, said the lack of restrooms has caused her to change her habits.
“It makes me think about whether I’ll walk versus drive,” Berkman, 32, said. “Obviously, I’d rather walk, but then I wonder: will there be someplace to go if my kids need to go to the bathroom?”
Berkman grew up in Rogers Park before moving to Hyde Park, where she attended the University of Chicago. Since moving back in July, she said she has noticed there aren’t as many publicly accessible buildings in the neighborhood as before.
While it isn’t her most pressing issue as a resident, Berkman said it’s comfortably in her top 10.
Rawski also plans her activities with access to a restroom in mind. She no longer patronizes businesses that don’t provide bathrooms to paying customers, she said.
For Baudler, the staggering lack of public restrooms has made the neighborhood less desirable than she’d like. She said she felt “more comfortable” in her time living in Pilsen due to the stronger sense of community resources.
Baudler said the neighborhood should invest in more public restrooms along the lakefront and into the northern subsets of Rogers Park which have been consistently neglected in history, not only increasing the quality of life for residents, but providing more incentives for locals to frequent these areas.
As a nurse, Rawski said the public health component of the issue reverberates through her mind.
“I mean, I think we want bathroom stuff to be done in the bathroom,” Rawski said. “It just seems like it would be a cleaner, safer community.”