Erika D. Smith

Erika D. Smith: Let’s get the stink out of midtown

It seemed like such an ingenious idea. One that Sacramento could steal and implement in the name of public health and funk-free breathing rights for all Sacramentans.

It seemed like a solution, but it’s not.

We aren’t San Francisco, but there, like here, people often pee in alleys, in the corners of parking garages, along the sides of buildings and on sidewalks. Some are bar-hoppers. Many more are homeless. Either way, the result is that San Francisco neighborhoods – the Mission, the Tenderloin, South of Market – smell like a porta-potty.

So San Francisco has done what any forward-thinking, snarky city would do: Coat nine walls in those neighborhoods with a urine-resistant paint. Douse these walls with liquid and it’ll shoot right back at you, which for men means soaked shoes and pants and for women means something, uhm, a little grosser.

(I’m convinced people could use it to potty train puppies, too. But I digress.)

Sacramento should invest in this stuff – ever so aptly named Ultra-Ever Dry. There are certainly some spots downtown and in midtown that could use it. Some alleys and corners along K Street come to mind, as do a few blocks along L and (no pun intended) P streets.

But that won’t solve all of our problems. Not even close.

Lost in all the juvenile excitement over urine-resistant paint is the fact that San Francisco has been trying to wipe out public urination for years. With its large and seemingly ubiquitous population of homeless people, the city has had no choice. It tried fines first and, when that didn’t work, rolled out the “Pit Stop” public restroom program.

Sacramento, meanwhile, with its smaller, but still large homeless, population, has been closing public restrooms. Initially, many in parks downtown and midtown were closed years ago because of budget cuts. More recently, they’ve remained shuttered because residents want them that way.

If that sounds cruel, consider this.

The public restrooms in neighborhood parks, when open, were magnets for crime. People would go there to use drugs. Others for prostitution.

And people routinely destroyed the bathrooms. In one, someone disconnected the pipes from the sink and decided to use the garbage can as a water basin. In another, parks maintenance workers found a pile of diarrhea next to a working toilet.

These are just two examples of many, many disgusting discoveries.

“It’s extremely vexing,” City Councilman Steve Hansen said. “We’ve just struggled to provide a place.”

So other than business owners who are willing to let people use their restrooms, those who have to go have to make the trek to Sacramento City Hall or to a library branch – and only within normal business hours.

We all know holding it overnight isn’t an option, so it’s good that another option is in the works: a Portland Loo.

A pilot program is underway to install one of these abuse-resistant, stainless steel, porta-potty-looking contraptions near the St. Rose of Lima Park transit station at Seventh and K streets. The timing of the project is still up in the air.

Unlike a regular public restroom, Portland Loos are designed to be nearly indestructible. They are easy to clean. They have toilets that flush and sturdy sinks that work. They have walls that shrug off graffiti, and openings at the tops and bottoms that make it tough to do anything illegal inside without everyone outside knowing about it.

“If it works, we’d look at expanding it,” Hansen said.

That’s good. But it’s also sad.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s really ridiculous that cities have to resort to installing tamperproof bathrooms and urine-resistant paint to keep adults from peeing and defecating in parks, backyards and the streets. But that’s the way it is. It’s not an easy problem to solve and, so, we can use all the ingenious ideas we can get.