Shuttered East Harlem bathroom focus of homeless advocacy group

A shuttered comfort station underneath the Metro-North tracks in East Harlem should be re-opened, according to advocacy group Picture the Homeless.
A shuttered comfort station underneath the Metro-North tracks in East Harlem should be re-opened, according to advocacy group Picture the Homeless. Photo Credit: 11 Honoré

A homeless advocacy group hopes to open a long-shuttered public bathroom in East Harlem, and flush out long-term plans for the comfort station.

Picture the Homeless is slated to meet with the city Department of Transportation this month, during which it plans to make the case for reviving a shuttered comfort station located in a plaza underneath the Metro-North viaduct on the southern side of East 125th Street, near Park Avenue, according to Nikita Price, the group’s civil rights organizer.

Price said Picture the Homeless wants to ensure the comfort station is protected amid several proposed projects in the area, including expanding the plaza and extending the Second Avenue subway up and west, across 125th Street. In the MTA’s environmental assessment for the subway expansion project, the authority said the comfort station is eligible to be listed on the state’s and nation’s registries of historic places, and is not expected to be directly affected by the current iteration of construction plans.

“If you’re going to do things in our communities, we want to have a say so in what happens — we would love to have this reopened,” Price said. “If you’re not going to reopen it … we want to make it a landmark. You’re not going to just tear it down.”

DOT released a statement confirming its plans to meet with Picture the Homeless and said further details would be forthcoming.

Uptown Grand Central, the nonprofit that created the plaza and now cleans and plans programming in it, would welcome more bathrooms, according to its executive director, Carey King. King said she could not speak on behalf of DOT, which owns the property, about the future of the comfort station.

City Council members Bill Perkins and Diana Ayala, whose districts border the area, did not return calls for comment.

Picture the Homeless began researching the restroom near its 104 E. 126th St. office about five years ago, when the Uptown Grand Central was preparing to open the plaza, according to Price. Price said he stressed that it would be important to open up the comfort station underneath the Metro-North tracks, but those he approached about it were noncommital.

“Conversations had come up about defecation, public urination, things like that — and we were like, ‘Well, is there not a bathroom right there?’” Price said. “We were told, ‘Well, that’s not really in our plans.’”

Price said Picture the Homeless did enough research to discover that the city Department of Transportation owned the comfort station. But the group then shifted its focus to protecting homeless people who could no longer sleep under the viaduct when the plaza was constructed, and who Price said were frequent targets of police telling them they could not stop and rest on the 125th Street corridor.

At the beginning of the year, Price said the group revived its push for opening up the comfort station and expanding public bathrooms, including deploying 15 automatic public toilets currently sitting in storage. Others who would like to see the equipment put to use include taxi and other professional drivers, mothers with young children and pregnant women.

A prior version of this article misstated the current name of the nonprofit organization Uptown Grand Central.