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Welcome to the Historic North End; Sorry, No Public Restrooms

When the three million annual Freedom Trail walkers leave Faneuil Hall and enter the North End, little do they realize they have to traverse the entire neighborhood and over to the Charlestown Navy Yard to reach the next public restroom. Unfortunately, that is the current situation along the North End Freedom Trail since the Hull Street visitor center has been closed.

Here is the typical story: Leaving Faneuil Hall, Mommy asks little Johnny if he has to “go.” He says no. Ten minutes later, Johnny is crying that he has to go NOW! So, Mom starts looking around for a public restroom. How about the Rose Kennedy Greenway? Boston’s newest park must have public restrooms, right? She finds mobile food carts, but no restrooms. Mommy scowls at the Greenway planners.

Mommy and Johnny continue on the Freedom Trail into the North End. She finds the site of the old Prado (Paul Revere Mall) restrooms, but they were converted to music studios. Mom heads to the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church thinking that such historic destinations might offer some reprieve. Unfortunately, the scrappy non-profits have neither the space nor the money. Then someone tells her they remember seeing signs for public restrooms on Hull St. between the Old North Church and Copp’s Hill Cemetery. Unfortunately, Mommy is a year too late as the Hull St. restrooms were recently cut from the State’s budget. Poor Mommy and Johnny are in serious trouble.

9 Hull St. where the visitors center and restrooms are now closed.

The public restrooms at 9 Hull St. accommodated over 800 patrons on a typical summer day. After eight years of operation, they are now locked and closed due to State funding cuts. In tight times, cuts in tourism budgets are not a surprise and certainly easier than cutting libraries or public works.

The Hull St. restrooms were nothing special, simply practical, with a sandwich board on the sidewalk welcoming tourists and some paper signs on the door directing people inside. The location is behind Villa Michelangelo, a building developed by the East Boston Development Association. The restrooms were part of the development deal for the complex that received HUD money. The developer ran them for a couple of years but the responsibility was eventually turned over to the State’s tourism agencies.

Former Speaker of the House and North Ender, Sal DiMasi, knew this was a problem years ago when he earmarked $50,000 to staff and maintain the Hull St. restrooms. The facility was open for eight years. With the powerful DiMasi out of office and nearly all earmarks cut from the State budget, the summer of 2010 was the first in recent memory without any public bathrooms in the North End.

Current State Representative Aaron Michlewitz points out that “tourism earmarks were cut entirely to zero. The economy does not provide much of an opportunity in the State budget to bring back funding right now.”

Some of the slack has been taken up by private establishments. Most will accommodate emergencies although many have “restrooms for customers only.” Some residents tell stories of taking pity on desperate families and letting them into their homes. Worse than that, many neighborhood alleys have become urination zones.

Inside the 9 Hull St. lobby, the signs are still there but the doors are locked.

Maintenance at the Hull St. location was helped by a joint effort between the Paul Revere House and Old North Church that would stock toilet paper, soap, etc. as in-kind donations. Even with the assistance from the historic sites, however, the staffing, maintenance and cleaning still cost $50,000 per year. Neither of these historic destinations currently have public restrooms on location. The proposed expansion of the Paul Revere House includes restrooms, but those will primarily be for their own visitors which pay a $3.50 admission.

Of course, locals know where to find the public restrooms in the neighborhood. There is the 25 cent, city operated “Wall” restroom by the bocce courts in Langone Park. If you are walking the Harborwalk, the new Fairmont Battery Wharf has public restrooms (downstairs from the hotel lobby). The Long Wharf Marriott also has public facilities, up the escalators past the gift shop. And most recently, there is another 25 cent bathroom installed last year in on Long Wharf (See “No Rush to Flush on Long Wharf”).

Most of the locations listed above are on the waterfront side of the North End, nowhere near the Freedom Trail. As for the Hull St. restrooms, the primary issue is how to fund public restrooms used by over 200,000 visitors per year.

Some neighborhood residents have started tossing around ideas. Alex Goldfeld, local historian and President of the North End Historical Society, believes the space could be “effective as a Visitor’s Center where brochures and maps could be made available. Neighborhood businesses might be interested in advertising at the facility.” Resident Tom Schiavoni suggested that, “a donation might be requested upon entry or an ATM machine could be installed.”

Similar to the city-operated facilities, a nominal 25-50 cents could be charged for those using the restrooms. Charging a fee would probably reduce the volume of users and revenues would not likely cover the expenses. Some residents have suggested a neighborhood fund-raising campaign or private/public partnerships. To date, none of these ideas have made much progress.

Ironically, during the first year without a public restroom on the North End Freedom Trail, the number of tourists is near record levels. With the opening of the Greenway, the expansion of historic destinations, more shops and restaurants, the number of visitors will only increase in the years ahead.

The question is, how long will Mommy and Johnny have to wait?

10 Replies to “Welcome to the Historic North End; Sorry, No Public Restrooms

  1. I am a tour guide in Boston, and board member of the Greater Boston Tour Guide Association. We deal with 30-50 people on motorcoaches for 3 and 4 hour tours of Boston. We have to tell our 70-90 year old passengers that they are not allowed to go to the bathroom in the city of Boston and they will just have to wait until the tour is over. How can a city the size of Boston, a city that draws tourists and tourist dollars, have so little consideration for those tourists. Yet tourists are people, not dollar signs, and people come to and come back to a city because they love the history, the warmth, and the welcome they receive. Can you imagine what some of these groups will say when they get home? Not only are there no restrooms, but there is also almost no place legally for motorcoaches to drop off and pick up passengers. We respect the residents of the North End (and other neighborhoods of the city), & all we ask are enough designated spaces as close as possible to the sites we are visiting, so we can limit the walking for those physically unable to walk very much, and to bring our passengers into a lively, historic, and fascinating area of the city. We bring them to restaurants, pastry shops, gift shops, and historic sites. We tell them about the wonderful people who live and have lived in this neighborhood. And all we ask is to be able to continue to do this by having legal spaces for our coaches, and by having a public restroom facility able to accommodate large numbers of people. Would they pay to use it? Absolutely. I am not too young, and am sure many of you are not as well, to remember that all public toilets were pay toilets at one time. A senior citizen or a young child, or even a middle aged tour guide, really needs to be able to go to the bathroom once in a while. Please reopen the visitor's center on Hull Street, if you have to then charge for the use of the facility – they will come.

  2. After this article was picked up by Universal Hub, I received some emails about the Hanover St. firehouse that often allows visitors to use their restroom. Unfortunately, the facilities cannot handle the 800+ people per day that were using the Hull Street visitor center. And of course, the fire station is there primarily to respond to fires and other emergencies.

    A waterfront resident also reminded me of another location along the Harborwalk. Besides the Fairmont Battery Wharf, there are also public restrooms at Burroughs Wharf, under a small tunnel near the end of the 50 Battery Wharf building. I also believe there is a public restroom at the Pilot House, 2 Atlantic Avenue, also along the Harborwalk.

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    by Thomas F. Schiavoni


    Since the fall of 2009, more than 1.5 million tourists along the Freedom Trail have strolled past the locked doors of a ground-level visitor center between the main gates of Copp’s Hill Burial Ground and Old North Church. The fully-operational facility has remained shuttered and unused due to a lack of funding. Originally envisioned as a way station in the basement annex of a former middle school , the center rests within the recently-renovated complex for elder housing, senior day programs, and offices for a nonprofit agency. In soliciting proposals for the development of what would eventually be called Villa Michelangelo, the city of Boston encouraged innovative designs for the dedication of a portion of space for public access. This led to the installation of the visitor center by the winning bidder, East Boston Community Development Corporation. However, this unique urban oasis closed indefinitely when state funding secured by former House Speaker Sal DiMasi was jettisoned in the latest round of budget cuts.
    The lack of public accommodations poses a real hardship on visitors. It perpetuates a long-standing inconvenience for merchants and residents, and detracts from Boston's image as a pedestrian-friendly city. The continual absence of public amenities creates a fragmented and haphazard pattern of tourism in the downtown and North End, and isolates individual attractions and businesses that depend upon Freedom Trail foot traffic for their livelihoods.


    When the idea for a European-style comfort station supported by user fees was originally broached, it was received with skepticism at best, derision at worst: "That won't work in Boston. We can't do that here. People will never pay for a restroom". However, the city of Boston has authorized the downtown installation of European-style pay toilets ($.25), one of which is located beside the bocce courts at Puopolo Park on Commercial Street in the North End. This unattended, outdoor installation has been plagued by a variety of problems, none of which are attributable to a user fee.

    It is ironical that many residents and visitors cite the European ambience of the North End as its most distinguishing feature among Boston's neighborhoods. Travelers to London, Paris, Rome and other great cities of the continent have encountered staffed, hygienic restrooms for a nominal charge. Therefore, the concept of a comfort station that imposes user fees for restrooms in an American city that touts itself as 'world class' should hardly be construed as foreign. To dismiss offhandedly this idea without pointing to other viable means of funding during a time of fiscal restraint is to maintain the status quo — which means the continued lack of accessible public amenities in a district noted for tourism and commerce.

    Some of us are old enough to recall the ubiquitous 'dime' toilets in public lavatories and restaurants in the 1950's and 1960's when modest charges for use of a clean and safe restroom were universally accepted. It should be noted that this was the era of the ten cent Coke and nickel candy bar. In real dollar terms, those charges were the equivalent of today's can of soda ( $.80 to $1.00) or two Milky Ways ($1.20 or higher). Therefore, estimated user fees of the Michelangelo visitor center, ranging from $.50 per person (perhaps $.25 for children and discounts for families and school groups), cannot possibly be considered exorbitant.

    It must be emphasized that the hundreds of anticipated daily restroom visits by tour groups and strollers requires frequent cleaning and a ready supply of soap and paper products. Therefore, maintenance costs of the restrooms must be realistically factored into the other budgetary needs of a visitor station.


    A European-style way station for travelers along Boston's Freedom Trail is viable if it can remain open year-round (hours adjusted in wintertime and off-season) and if there is the possibility of generating additional revenue from sources that do not compete with neighborhood businesses. An ATM machine with rent and sponsorship underwriting from a financial institution is possible. Likewise, maybe a work station for internet/fax access could be explored. Brochure racks and displays for trolley companies, theaters and restaurants could generate additional income. These amenities facilitate and promote more leisurely visits along the Freedom Trail and, indeed, to the rest of the district. It resolves an immediate problem of a lack of public restrooms in the North End which continues to plague residents as well as merchants. NOTE: There are more than 100 restaurants and shops in the immediate North End area. If these enterprises, as well as local non-profits, fraternal and neighborhood organizations, each contributed $100.00, start-up funds of $10,000.00 would be available to unlock the doors.

    Old North Church rests literally within yards of the doors of the visitor center. This site experiences a continuous flow of visitors throughout the year from liturgies, tours, concerts, special events, commemorative celebrations, and shoppers at the church's adjacent store. Therefore, it must be candidly acknowledged that fully-operational and conveniently-situated restrooms directly benefit this Freedom Trail site and undoubtedly eliminate distraction from constant requests for access (including handicapped access) to restroom facilities. Church representatives serve as trustees with staff from Paul Revere House on the board of the non-profit corporation which has stewardship of the now locked visitor center. Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate for Old North Church and Paul Revere House to approach North End business and civic associations to find a solution.


    Not merely providing safe and clean public restrooms, a comfort station in the North End could simultaneously serve as a contact center for a heavily-traveled section of the Freedom Trail; provide orientation and supply information through displays, brochures and guided tours for other historical and cultural attractions; and motivate tourists, particularly those on foot, to visit sites in the downtown and across the river in Charlestown. The visitor center can be a place for people to pause, look at displays and wall exhibits, view memorabilia and artifacts, and become more familiar with the richness of the generations of immigrants who have passed through America's oldest neighborhood.


    The siting of a visitor center at Villa Michelangelo required years of advocacy. It was finally achieved through the belief that community groups, businesses and Freedom Trail sites could cooperate in solving a problem which is a source of embarrassment for all Bostonians who cling to the notion that they inhabit a 'livable' city. Yet, the loss of this resource is a reality. If a local agency were to face a sudden crisis from an eviction, fire or other casualty loss, the immediate availability of the vacant space at Villa Michelangelo would be irresistible. Even if such a contingency was initially planned to be temporary, once ensconced, an organization would be difficult to relocate in a district where high rents are the norm.


    The idea of a visitor center/comfort station supported by user fees can no longer be ignored. Time has run out. Whether for or against the concept of a user fee for public restrooms, please include a comment below. What is your opinion?

  4. This is not a bad idea. I hope enough folks can come together to make it happen.

    Signed by someone who's building has been used as a toilet.

  5. I live downtown but not in the North End and I have noticed several times how poorly we treat our visitors. The lack of public restrooms is a prime example in the North End. This would seem like a prime opportunity to get business owners and the city together to make a solution. With that many tourists going down the freedom trail, this should be an easy problem to solve. Last time I visited the North End, it was booming with people. The tourism part of the economy is so important and if we don't appreciate it, folks will go somewhere else.

  6. Here's a novel idea. Let the tourists actually BUY something in one of the cafes and then ask to use the restrooms. Most of them don't. And please don't ask if one of a group can use the restroom as an emergency and then line up 30 people to use the facility as a surprise to the poor business owner. Who do you think pays for the toilet paper, soap, water, trash removal and cleaning of the facility? That is an unnecessary burden to the owner and an inconvenience for PAYING customers.

  7. "We respect the residents of the North End (and other neighborhoods of the city), & all we ask are enough designated spaces as close as possible to the sites we are visiting, so we can limit the walking for those physically unable to walk very much, and to bring our passengers into a lively, historic, and fascinating area of the city." Sorry Cheryl but THERE IS NO ROOM FOR TOUR BUSES IN THE NORTH END. Parking is scarce as it is and we do not need buses trying to navigate our narrow crowded streets. If a 90 yr old can't walk the freedom trail….oh well they should travel with someone who can push their wheel chair. The bus tour companies should disclose this information. There are enough designated tour bus parking spots on Commercial St and on the Surface road near the North End Greenway parks. STOP BEING SO LAZY.

  8. This clears up why the North End Branch of the Boston Public Library at 25 Parmenter Street has seen so much tourist activity this summer! I thought they were coming to admire its F.L. Wright – inspired modern design by Carl Koch, and a few did venture in towards the impluvium (fountain). The crowd, however, lingered for the most part by the restrooms, and yes, there were often twenty or thirty in line. The Nazzaro Community Center at 30 North Bennett Street also has bathrooms (as a former bath house, one would hope so!). Both facilities are handicapped-accessible.
    With these two options, I don't see the situation as totally desperate, save on Sundays and Holidays. And even locals (guys) just go and empty themselves in the darker corners of the Gassy.

  9. Wanted to address a couple of comments – one is that tourists won't buy anything to go to the bathroom. Trust me, that would not be an issue – when you gotta go you will do anything. But really, think about 50, 100, 150 passengers lined up to use a one stall restroom in a small coffee shop. Not only would it take much too long (tours are very tight on timing) but the cafe would never allow it as it would hinder its regular customers. And for the record, I bring my groups to Mike's many times, and there is no public bathroom (and I don't bring them there for that purpose anyway, but to enjoy a taste of the local neighborhood, which they do pay for). And our whole point in asking for public restrooms, and saying that these should be pay toilets, is because we don't want to inconvenience anyone or have anyone incur needless extra costs. And some of the sites mentioned by other responders – not sure if they can handle 100's of people a day, or if we would have time to get there and back to the trail. We can try it, and thank you for pointing them out.

    As far as the comment about no room for buses in the North End. Of course not, the streets are too narrow for cars, much less buses. We don't want to bring them into the neighborhood, just around the perifery. The very spaces you name are the spaces that have been taken away from us. Commercial Street is named that for a reason. It is not called "quaint little path". Trucks, MBTA buses, etc. all use that route to get around the neighborhood, and that is what we do as well. All we are asking for are legal spots, not in front of anyone's home, to drop off and pick up – on a "commercial" street. The spaces we are asking for are the ones we have had the past couple of years, in front of the Starbucks and the skating rink, and it would be great to get back the ones we had a few more years past, in front of the parking garage. No one lives in these spots, and they are a perfect solution.

    And the comment to not be lazy – believe me, I am proud of the seniors who come out on tour. Bless them, they could be sitting home and watching the world pass them by, but instead they get out and on those tours, and even with walkers and canes, they walk up to the Old North, and other sites. I give them all the credit in the world, and resent you labeling them as lazy because they can't physically do as much as obviously you still can. I wonder how you will feel when you are 90? I wonder how you will feel if one of your parents or grandparents are told they should just stay home and not be a burden to anyone because they might need a little more consideration or help.

    The bottom line is that tourists are not the enemy. They are here because they want to like the area, they chose it out of all the corners of the world to visit. They bring money into the city and state. Some of the students on group tours may choose to attend school here, or someday choose to live here or start businesses here. I don't know about you folks, but I want Boston and Massachusetts to be a desirable place to visit and live. I love this city and state, and want to show it off. It's very hard to do that for people whose eyes are swimming in their heads. It's also difficult to do that if we can't stop the bus to let them off – so far we haven't developed the capability to beam in and out.

  10. @Cheryl
    If I remember correctly, parking in front of the garage was removed because of the public safety issues caused there. Since there is not a light at Hull St, cars could not safely turn onto Commercial St in either direction because the buses blocked their sight line. Pedestrians who wanted to cross the street there could not do so safely.

    Something that might help the case of tour bus operators is if making the bus drivers obey the 5 minute engine idle law. Unfortunately, most tour bus drivers leave their engines running so that the A/C or heat is always on and can they can be unpleasant if a non law enforcement/parking enforcement officer tells them they need to shut the engine off. Or how about not stopping where there is no stopping or parking for anyone. Or not driving through North End Streets even though there are signs that say buses excluded? But I digress.

    Perhaps the Tour bus operators can make a "goodwill" gesture and offer to pay all or some of the expenses of reopening the Hull St facility for one season until a permanent solution is found. Maybe the Mass Convention and tourist people will kick in some money. How about one of the larger travel agencies that you work with to fill your tours? Just a thought.

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