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How Chicago's Fight To Ban Pay Toilets Relates To Today's City Protests

By Justin Breen | December 12, 2016 5:36am
 Chicago became the first major American city to ban pay toilets, thanks to the efforts of the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America.
Pay toilets
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CHICAGO — Steve Froikin said today's protest-filled climate in Chicago reminds him of the successful efforts he led in the late 1960s and early 1970s to end the use of pay toilets in the city.

Froikin, a West Ridge resident and University of Chicago graduate, was one of the founding members of Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA), which started in 1969 with a group of four high school friends from a Dayton, Ohio synagogue and turned into a membership of 1,000-plus college students and others across the country.

"Obviously there were tons of things going on in 1969 — war, all that — but if you were faced with a locked bathroom stall door and you didn't have money to pay for it, it was a problem," Froikin said. "This was a manageable thing we could take on, and it was fun."

Froikin started the Chicago movement when he began attending U. of C. In Chicago, pay toilets were all over Downtown, most public buildings, Greyhound bus stations, gas stations, plus O'Hare, Midway and Meigs Field airports. Anyone could walk into a bathroom, but to get into a Nik-O-Lok company stall, it cost a dime to turn an otherwise locked knob to enter. Froikin said women had it much tougher as men's standing urinals were free to use.

Froikin's group and others "claimed the lock company Nik-O-Lok had a monopoly on this concession, which was viewed as un-American and pay toilets adversely affected women since there were no pay urinals," said Peter Alter of the Chicago History Museum.

The group created stickers that included a hand coming out of a toilet holding a chain and even a catchy jingle that featured a lyric: "I reached in my pocket to search for a dime, but nature was calling, I hadn’t much time." They gave out an annual Thomas Crapper Memorial Award to the member who contributed most to the free-toilet effort.

Chicago became the first major city in the United States to ban pay toilets, first in February 1973 at the three airports, then a citywide ban that passed in City Council about two weeks later. New York, Philadelphia and other cities followed.

Froikin said the Chicago effort was successful because his group found an ally in Ald. Seymour Simon (40th), who the Tribune reported had been "fighting renewal of the Nik-O-Lok leases by the council for years."

Froikin said today's protesters could learn a thing from membrs of his group, who first sent letters to the editor of newspapers but then reached out to neighborhood politicians.

"We talked to aldermen, and you can just walk in and talk to these people," Froikin said. "I'm sure that's not a widespread piece of information. If you talk to your alderman, it magnifies your voice. I guess I'd say that's what I learned. ... It was a learning process to find out how to do politics."

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