Photo: Volkmar Heinz/picture alliance via Getty Images
Last week, the New York Time published an essay that asked the question, “Do I really need a toilet?” Writer, Stephen Ruddy, reflected on the indignities of apartment hunting after 17 years in the same space. It’s an experience that many New Yorkers can relate to, but the one detail that really seemed to stick with people was the restroom. Or rather, the lack of one. One of the apartments the writer sees is a too-good-to-be-true antebellum on Carmine Street, “a proper two-bedroom, with high ceilings, terrific light and stunning views of Greenwich Village, all for 1 $995 per month.” The problem? The client was in the hall, shared with the other apartments upstairs.
In the days after the story aired, a number of friends texted me about it, all variations of “Have you seen that?” followed by “Can you believe it?” I typed in a version of “I know, don’t I? I would have taken it!” Which was not, it turned out, popular opinion. But it’s not like there was no toilet – it was just a few steps outside. The apartment had its own tub and sink, in a passable bathroom, no less, not the kitchen, as many unrenovated apartments still do. And you just to know the premises are rent-stabilized. Of course, a real bathroom would have been preferable, but it’s not as if the apartment had nothing else to recommend it – the windows were huge and vaulted, and it was less than $2,000 a month in the Town. As any real estate agent in New York will tell you, there are always compromises. What’s so terrible about a shared bathroom?
Not that there aren’t legitimate questions the writer raises: How many people would share it? And who would clean it? (In ORS the responsibility usually lies with the landlords, and when I contacted Ruddy he said the washrooms were small but clean.) Could the tenant use bathrooms on other floors if his were occupied ? We never learn the answers because the writer considers and ultimately decides not to buy the apartment after learning that it wouldn’t be possible to add a toilet without major renovations – which is probably also the reason for which the owner never bothered to do. (Although when I reached out, Ruddy told me he was quite conflicted with the decision: “I lived overseas at different times during my childhood, and the bathrooms in the hallways aren’t uncommon. It’s never bothered me so much.”
I never really understood the obsession with having your own bathroom. Not so long ago, many homes, including the one I grew up in, had only one bathroom. Only in recent decades has it become common in new construction to have a 1:1 bed-to-bath ratio, often with an extra spare half bathroom. I’ve spent over a decade living in shared accommodations, including a townhouse in San Francisco with nine roommates and two bathrooms – one of which was split, with a toilet on one side of the hallway and the sink and tub on the other – and I don’t remember any real problems coming up. I once had my own sink, set up in the skylight of a nice old house in Connecticut, which was nice. But I never had a bathroom all to myself and never found that to be a problem. Admittedly, sharing with neighbors is different from sharing with roommates or family members, but it’s hardly impractical unless someone’s really gross (or a real bathroom hog).
Bathrooms and kitchens are the most expensive spaces per square foot to build and renovate; given soaring housing prices in the United States, it would seem logical to have less. Instead, the trend went in the opposite direction. Stephen Smith, co-founder of Quantierra, a real estate technology company, tells me that’s because many multi-bedroom apartments are designed for roommates rather than families. Even dorms, one of the few shared living experiences for many Americans, are increasingly suites with private or semi-private beds and bathrooms.
These preferences were also likely created in part by zoning codes in the United States that drive city developers to construct large buildings with lots of windowless interior space, Smith notes, which they fill with bathrooms and of dressing rooms. (Like this two-bedroom apartment with two-and-a-half bathrooms.) “What else are you going to do with all that space?” He asked. New multi-family homes in cities lately take inspiration from upscale suburban homes, packing in huge en-suite bathrooms with double sinks and gigantic kitchen islands, even as these features squander our limited urban space.
We are, I think, a little too attached to the idea that bathrooms are somehow unseemly, that the events that take place there are too shameful to be shared in any way. It wasn’t always like this. A few months ago I read The creation of “The African Queen” by Katharine Hepburn. Instead of being shot in the studio, the film was largely shot on location, which was relatively rare in the early 1950s and involved a few mishaps and inconveniences, including what Hepburn describes as an embarrassing toilet situation: She, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall shared a row of outbuildings with only thin walls between them. Rather than risk sitting in an outhouse next to Bogart, Hepburn opted instead to use a chamber pot in his cabin. Because she had used chamber pots as a child, she knew a trick, she added: line the inside with newspaper. It’s unfathomable that a movie star today would divulge her feelings about toilet sharing or offer pro advice on pooping in a bucket. While our current mindset has led us to a situation where obsessive attention to privacy takes up square footage that could, especially now, be put to better use: as offices, as extra bedrooms, a better dining room where you can sit with friends. .
I’m not the only one to think that. Years ago, I interviewed two longtime residents of the Chelsea Hotel who told me they were perfectly fine sharing a bathroom down the hall. Not only was it convenient to have someone else tidy up and clean the space, but “it’s a matter of principle,” one of them, Ed Hamilton, told me. “It’s an affordable way to live.” And yes, okay, it was the Chelsea Hotel, but lower-rise buildings, like a renovated SRO in Harlem that rents rooms with kitchenettes and shared bathrooms for around $1,500 a month, have drawn a flow. constant number of young professionals. (At the moment, only one of the building’s 20 units is available.) As for the Carmine Street apartment, the writer reconsidered after seeing the price had dropped to $1,850. But before he could reconnect with the agent, someone else had hired him.