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Russian Turkish Baths

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
photo by Julia Hirsch
Public bath house in the Russian & Turkish tradition
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By Caitlin Van Dusen 

If you come to the Russian and Turkish Baths expecting soothing balms, thick towels, and gentle ministrations of flower-scented infusions, head elsewhere. This is a rough-hewn place -- and proud of it. In fact, the tenaciously shopworn character of the Tenth Street Baths, as they are known, has been one of the reasons for their longevity. The meticulously achieved balance of old and new is evident even in the sign above the door: Gold adhesive letters spelling out "268 E" have been affixed just to the left of the tenement tile sign proclaiming "Tenth Street Baths."

Stroll down East Tenth Street on a weekday afternoon in midwinter (hint: the best time to visit the baths), and you'll notice a plume of smoke rising from a metal shaft climbing the facade of a bedraggled redbrick building. Bolstered as it is by both a Pilates and tai chi studio, a holistic pet shop, and a raw foods restaurant, its vapors seem to issue from another era. After ascending the steps and pushing through the heavy doors, you find yourself in a haphazardly arranged room: At one end, Formica tables are arrayed before two televisions, broadcasting different channels simultaneously (often a football game and the Weather Channel). A dazed audience of men and women with steam-pinkened chicken legs; twenty-somethings in mud masks sip wheatgrass juice; burly men shake out the pages of Cyrillic newspapers and gnaw on buttered hunks of rye bread. A cramped food counter proffers a menu that reflects the appetites of the baths' motley clientele: blintzes, fresh-squeezed juice blends (including a "liver cleanser" and a "heartbeat"), Russian beer, borscht, candy bars. The air smells like peppermint, chicken, and damp towels, but conspicuously absent is the nostril-searing chlorine usually associated with public pools. 

Behind the seating area rises the baths' business epicenter: an intimidatingly high counter, presided over by an invariably surly attendant. You reach up to relinquish your wallet and valuables to an iron strongbox stowed in a rack in the wall, in exchange for a numbered key on a rubber band. Accounts are settled upon departure, lest you be seduced by the subterranean mists into a platza beating or a sea salt scrub. You are instructed in no uncertain terms to to keep your key with you at all times, and over the years, clients have devised clever ways to adhere to this dictum: Svelte young women slip the rubber bands ornamentally around their biceps or ankles; burly Russian men, around their wrists. 

A board above the front dest spells out the baths' hours (women-only Wednesday mornings, men-only Sunday mornings), regulations, and roster of "special treatments." The random-note quality of the adhesive lettering is perhaps fitting for the baths' somewhat ominous-sounding offerings: A "Russian massage" is administered by a scantily clad Russian strongman or -woman who beats, squeezes, and unravels muscles into a limp pulp - an experience at once exhilarating and debilitating. The "Dead Sea salt scrub" and "Dead Sea mud treatments" deliver a thorough epidermal sloughing. But perhaps the most exotic treatment is the "platza massage," during which a masseur beats your back with a broom made of fresh oak leaves saturated in soapy water. An astringent quality in the leaves is said to open the pores, the leaves exfoliate dead skin, and the olive oil in the soap - thankfully- soothes. The platza massage is the most daring, and reputedly most authentic, of the treatments offered; it is also the only one that is administered publicly, in the pulsing heart of the Tenth Street Baths: the Russian sauna. 

These treatments are offered at an additional cost; the modest regular admission fee guarantees you a pair of outsized white rubber slippers, an unlimited supply of tiny, threadbare towels, and free access to cotton swabs and disposable razors. It also includes the baths' trademark uniform, undoubtedly one of the secrets of its success in building a sense of community among its diverse clientele: a one-size-fits-all sleeveless robe, or a pair of shorts, the elastic waistband of which inevitably crackles out into stretchlessness. Much as patrons have devised ways to wear their keys, they have also risen to the baths' sartorial challenge: The waistbands of the shorts can be rolled into a low-rise hipster look, towels into strapless bikini tops or (for the slender) sarongs, robes worn with the opening to the back and the waistband cinched into a makeshift dress. Others abstain from the communal garments altogether, preferring their own swimwear for reasons of sanitation or fashion. After devising a suitable costume, you descend to the baths down a slippery tile staircase past yet another posted ban - "No spitting No shaving No cleaning of teeth" - and the true experience of the Tenth Street Baths begins. 

You might choose to ease your way into the experience in the familiar calm of the cedar sauna - or plunge right into the Russian sauna in all its two-hundred-degree glory. The warning sign on the door misleadingly touts its "radiant heat," the source of which is now a gas furnace but formerly was a stucco box filled with boulders hewn from cemetery stone and heated with coals. Should you choose the Russian option, the heat hits you like a wall upon opening the door; newcomers often duck for refuge in the lower altitudes. Seat yourself on one of the splintered wooden boards set atop the cement benches and bask until you can't stand it anymore. Then grab one of the plastic buckets that reside under the free-flowing ice water taps, hoist it over your head, take a deep breath, and pour. The moment of impact- when all time, sensation, thought, and consciousness are shocked into absence - is the essence of the Russian sauna experience. The shock of extremes repelling and merging simultaneously is the key to its benefits for body and mind. 

After another bout with the radiant heat, you may decide to flee the Russian sauna and plunge instead into the ice water pool, about twelve feet long by eight feet wide, its frigid surface pocked with soggy oak leaves from platza clients. The ice water pool, like a sorbet between rich courses, provides the perfect segue between bathing experiences, cleansing the palate and readying it for the next onslaught of heat. 

The peppermint smell in the lobby upstairs issues from the Turkish steam room, a glassed-in closet of slick tiles enveloped in a heady vapor infused with eucalyptus oil. The tiled Turkish steam room offers a less barbarian version of the Russian steam room, with racks of wooden benches and a cold shower on a pull string (apparently woven of old robes) by the door. This is a relatively easy room in which to steep- the thick steam separates occupants from each other, much like being lost in a snowstorm, and the scented air refreshes and soothes. When you've had enough, you can shower in one of the unisex stalls adjacent, shave at the communal sink, or decompress on the edge of the pool alongside fellow bathers belted with rubber-banded keys.

 

The baths were founded in 1892, when most of the city's immigrants and poor lived without convenient access to clear running water for drinking, let alone bathing. The city built floating baths on the Hudson and East rivers beginning in the 1870s, but the first free public bathhouse didn't open until 1901, on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side. (The last one, the Allen Street Baths, closed in the 1970s.) For those with some change in their pockets, commercial bathhouses presented yet another option. The Russian and Turkish Baths on East Tenth Street was one of about sixty such private bathhouses in the city in the 1890s; many were used by Eastern European Jews. 

The schvitz (meaning "to sweat" in Yiddish) evolved as a mostly male institution, where city dwellers could not only clean up but play cards, drink schnapps, chat, and vent their troubles with friends and strangers alike. At the turn of the twentieth century, New York's schvitz culture was thriving, primarily in the predominantly Jewish quarters of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and Coney Island in Brooklyn. As living conditions in the tenements improved, and many devotees of the schvitz departed in midcentury for the suburbs, New York City's schivtz culture declined, to be overtaken by upscale spas and gyms, which offered ostensibly the same roster of services but in a less "exotic" environment. Spas were everything the Tenth Street Baths were not: hot stone massages in place of platza beatings; stacks of fresh terrycloth towels and handcrafted soaps in place of raveling brown hand towels and Styrofoam cups of "Black Sea mud"; even minimalist "spa cuisine" in place of hearty borscht, blintzes and knishes. 

In 1974, the Tenth Street Baths were taken over by Al Modlin, who hoped that schvitz culture might catch on with the neighborhood's changing population. At the time, the lobby floors were covered in mismatched strips of linoleum, the walls papers in 1950s girlie photographs, and the front room filled with cigar smoke of the then-bastions of schvitz: gray-haired Russian men swathed in white towels, tossing back shots of vodka and yammering in Yiddish.

Modlin managed to escort the baths through a decade, only to be hit with the unexpected fallout of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. The long-touted health benefits of communal sweating were overshadowed by fear of the fatal germs that might be seeping into the ancient boards and buckets. By 1985, the roof was caving in, and mice scurried between the legs of the vacant chairs. A neighbor in the tenement next door filed a lawsuit against the baths, complaining that boiling water was leaking into his apartment. The city threatened to close down the baths - until Boris Tuberman and Dave Shapiro came along. Their faith in the social and gustatory benefits of schvitzing managed to cleanse not only the floors but the baths' squalid reputation.

Tuberman and Shapiro went right to work, adding a new furnace, a renovated kitchen serving fresh-pressed fruit juices in addition to the traditional Russian fare of kasha and borscht, a rooftop sundeck, an an exercise room. Following the heyday of improvements, the young and the hip, as well as the old and the nostalgic, pour through the doors with as much enthusiasm as they pour buckets of icy water over their heads in the sauna. From LL Cool J to the housewife or yoga instructor next door, the baths still have the power to mesmerize - and unite. Somehow, sitting in a two-hundred degree stone cave beneath the teeming sidewalks of New York City brings people together in unexpected ways. That is the magic of the baths that its patrons and proprietors attest to: It is New York's "unexpected paradise" - and an infernally hot one at that.