The New York City Parks Department’s archives in Flushing, Queens hold almost a century of photographs. They’re documents of the physical condition of the city’s recreational infrastructure, and testaments to the role of the parks in the city in good times and in bad. Rebekah Burgess is caretaker of this vast collection, which regularly yields new insights into the parks’ past, and, occasionally, a surprise. Here, she shares a recently uncovered album of images of some of the parks’ least exposed precincts — their public bathrooms. In the 1930s, when Robert Moses took over the city’s parks system, providing new and updated “comfort stations” was part and parcel of increasing New Yorkers’ access to the public realm. Since the 19th century, modern, sanitary public bathrooms have been connected not only to public health and hygiene, but to people’s ability to venture beyond their homes and fully participate in the life of the city. They’ve not come without effort; just as women’s public bathrooms inspired controversy in the nineteenth century, provisions for noncompliant bodies and the needs of a diverse range of users prompt debate and preoccupy planners and designers today. Below, never-seen scenes from a dramatic expansion of the city’s parks and playgrounds and sinks and stalls.
When Mayor Fiorello La Guardia unified New York City’s five separate borough parks systems in 1934, one of new citywide Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’ first acts was to assemble an official crew of photographers to document the public works to come. Over the next decade, with funds from the New Deal, Moses would hire 70,000 parks workers and embark on a massive construction project, including the building of an archive.
The Parks photography unit documented progress in the city starting with negative number one on February 9, 1934, and adding in images in sequential order to reach over 32,000 by the time of Moses’ retirement as Commissioner in 1960. (Parks photographers kept going after 1960, adding hundreds of thousands more images to the archives.)
The Parks Department’s photography archive documents the city’s ebb and flow, the cycles of improvement and corrosion amidst continued efforts to stave off the inevitable human wear on public space. The city’s aspirations, issues, and self-image are especially on display in a curious album, recently recovered behind a stack of boxes in the agency’s archives in Flushing, Queens — a meticulous survey of the condition of every public bathroom, or “comfort station,” located in the city’s parks. Between the Art Deco covers lies a window onto the more private corners of the city’s public realm and a moment of modernization in modesty.
With careful captions added by typewriter and tipped-in photographic prints, the album stands as the only surviving trace of a dogged endeavor. Between November 5th and the end of 1934, the newly formed Parks photography unit was dispatched to record the more obscure corners of Robert Moses’s new domain: the bath- and locker rooms of 46 parks (and golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools and playgrounds) in Manhattan, 47 in Brooklyn, 18 in the Bronx, 23 in Queens, and nine in Staten Island.
It seems a thankless task, but the album was clearly a labor of love. Handmade for internal use rather than public record, its pages provide an intimate look at one small aspect of a project of modernization on a grand scale.
Months before their anticipated completion, two playground comfort stations in Queens were photographed with new bathroom fixtures partially, or yet to be installed. At two parks in the Bronx, relatively new facilities met with a stamp of approval from the album’s anonymous author.
Many older structures, like this wood-frame women’s comfort station on the north edge of Central Park at 110th Street and Lenox Avenue, were slated for demolition. Typewritten commentary dismissively marked buildings and bathrooms as “substandard,” “antiquated and unsanitary,” or “totally inadequate.” Were these official decisions or one person’s recommendations?
Some accommodations were even more rustic, like these temporary stations at waterfront parks in Queens and Staten Island.
A wood-burning potbelly stove still heated the comfort station at Grand Army Plaza; other public bathrooms lacked electric lights. Photographers documented a range of materials in a range of conditions at sites across the city. While some were antiquated or in disrepair, other, modern comfort stations were deemed “well planned and maintained.”
“Well planned and equipped,” the comfort station in Union Square was one of several subterranean bathrooms in the department’s domain.
Time and wear demonstrated “the inadvisability of glass partitions” at a new playground comfort station in Brooklyn, and the importance of maintenance and staffing at even the most up-to-date facilities, lest they fall into a “disorderly condition.”
These images of toilets and sinks and partitions and plumbing are often clinical, and matter of fact. Synthesized within the collection as they were originally intended, they provide a small portion of the durable record of the advancement of public work, proof of that work going into the city’s infrastructure. Together, they provide an argument for what must be demolished and what must be modernized, projecting a future of change and improvement. The ambitious schedule and vast scope for renovations meant that many comfort stations would still be unfinished at park inaugurations. Some renovations scheduled to be completed in April 1935 were still underway in 1940.
The album captures one moment in the longer process of design and construction of each municipal facility. Other images in the Parks archives, from plans and renderings of new designs, to photographs taken after the album was completed, document the life of the comfort station, and the comfort station in the life of the city. While the requirements of modesty dictated that the bathrooms be photographed devoid of users, later on, the Parks photographers would happily capture more dynamic scenes of the facilities in use.
We often view progress in a city through its iconic landmarks and spectacular architectural jewels. Though banal bathrooms might lie out of view, the effort to give more people access to the city’s public spaces and opportunities for recreation was no less monumental.
All images courtesy NYC Parks Photo Archive.