Tour guide James Miele knows the history of all the North End landmarks on the Freedom Trail: the Paul Revere House, the Old North Church, the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. But if Miele’s flock is overhydrated, sometimes what’s more important is that he can find the restrooms.
That knowledge is valuable on a long section of the Freedom Trail that has no free public facilities. After leaving Faneuil Hall for a meandering walk to the USS Constitution in Charlestown, the trail’s 4 million annual visitors are on their own.
“You just try to time it right,” said Miele, 29, as his tour group of 30 eighth-graders streamed into Old North Church earlier this month. “People come to the Freedom Trail and say, ‘What do you mean there’s not a bathroom?’ ”
The panicked result can be shuffling from foot to foot, pleas for mercy at busy North End cafes, or scrounging for quarters outside a lonely city toilet near Langone Park.
Then, for the fortunate, there’s this: two restrooms that Old North Church has made available since last summer to fill a small part of the need. Miele, in a fix, will share that nugget of information.
“When people get to us, they’re often looking for a little relief,” said the Rev. Stephen T. Ayres, vicar of Old North Church, whose sextant’s signal preceded Paul Revere’s famous ride in 1775. “We have an obligation to help them with basic amenities.”
To some community activists and business owners in the dense, old neighborhood, that obligation should not have to be borne by good Samaritans in a city that aggressively markets its tourist appeal.
“It’s a profound embarrassment,” said Thomas Schiavoni, a lawyer who is chairman of the Friends of Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. “My wife and I live two doors in from the Freedom Trail, and we’ve had families come in and use our first-floor bathroom.”
People who need to relieve themselves also use stone walls beside Snow Hill Street, said Schiavoni, as well as dark recesses inside parking garages.
“They’ll put in a merry-go-round in the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, but they won’t put in some place to go” in the North End, Schiavoni complained.
Urgent calls of nature strain the hospitality of restaurant staff and business owners in the neighborhood. In tiny Caffe Lil Italy, across from the Old North Church, employees expect to be approached for help dozens of times a day.
Adriana, who declined to give her last name, stood behind the counter and shook her head with a rueful smile. “It seems that every person who comes in here asks for the bathroom,” she said. “It’s an issue. It’s hard to welcome all of them. They use water, soap, tissue.”
To winnow the deserving from the not-so-sympathetic, Adriana has created a personal pecking order: “I’ll let in children, pregnant women, and older people,” she said. “But younger people? No, I won’t.”
Next to the Paul Revere House, which does not have a restroom even for paying visitors, Sarah Gardner of the Carmen trattoria looked warily at a feisty group of visiting schoolchildren in adjacent North Square.
“We’ve had kids lock themselves in the bathroom,” which is accessible only by a narrow set of steep stairs, said Gardner, who is a manager and server.
“It’s a liability if someone comes in and falls,” Gardner said. “You want to help people out, but it’s just not safe to let people back there. It’s a sticky subject.”
Ayres, the Old North vicar, estimated that 100 people a day will use the two restrooms in the basement of the church’s gift shop. He is asking for a $1 donation per visit, plans to assign staff there, and will pay for supplies and cleaning from contributions.
“It’s a little extra work to manage it, but we bring many tourists here,” Ayres said. About 525,000 last year, to be more specific.
Chris Cook — the city’s director of arts, tourism, and special events — readily acknowledged the neighborhood’s problem.
“You’ve spotted our weak spot: The North End is where there’s a gap,” Cook said. “I think tourists have a reasonable expectation that if they visit a major tourist destination, they would be able to quickly and efficiently get to a facility.”
Until the recession, that option was available at the former Michelangelo School, on Hull Street near the Old North Church, where a nonprofit group had established a North End visitors center that included several restrooms. But when hard times hit, Ayres said, state tourism grants dried up, and the visitors center closed several years ago.
As a result, the only public toilet near the Freedom Trail in the North End is on the sidewalk of waterfront Commercial Street.
Phones have been ripped from its side, entry costs a quarter, and a sign cautions visitors that they are limited to 25 minutes each.
“Who, for heaven’s sake, is going to go down there?” said Schiavoni, who added that the restroom has a reputation for unsavory activity.
Mimi La Camera, president of the Freedom Trail Foundation, said a solution will not be found easily.
Not only are restrooms expensive to install and maintain because of plumbing and sewer work, officials said, but funding is problematic in an era of austerity.
“You know how Boston is,” La Camera said. “It’s just complicated.”
What’s needed, Schiavoni said, is some imaginative cooperation among government agencies, North End businesses, and historic sites that benefit directly from tourism on the Freedom Trail. Asking for a user fee should not be off the table, he said.
“If you want safe and clean amenities like this, it’s OK to pay what you would pay for a candy bar or a soda,” Schiavoni said.
Until more North End restrooms are available, insider tips and the hospitality of strangers will help steer visitors toward regret or relief.
Still, Ayres said, “it doesn’t help when we have 100 people stepping off the tour buses.”