Sunday, December 24, 2017

A visit to the old Division Street Russian Baths.

The Men's Bath, by Albrecht Dürer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Not everybody understands the importance of sometimes stopping what you're doing and just relaxing. Water helps. Tomorrow I'm reporting on Chicago's newest public bath, which I visited last week because I am a fan of its oldest, the Division Street Russian Baths, opened in 1906 and surviving to this day under the unfortunate name of the Red Square Spa. 

    To get us in the proper aquatic mood, today I'm re-visiting the old Russian baths toward the end of their existence, in the late 1990s. 

     Monday, 8 a.m. Just one customer at the Division Street Russian Baths: me. "No people because it's Monday morning?" I ask, hopefully, of one of the masseurs.
     "No people every day," he says.
     I undress, wrap myself in a sheet, and head downstairs, pondering this mystery. "No people every day." I haven't been here in a year. I used to go all the time. My brother and I were members; we'd try to slide by once a week to take the heat and get a massage before breakfast. It was great.
     But life got busy. He's busy. I'm busy. Everybody's busy. I've been meaning to get here for a long time, but was galvanized into action by something a computer consultant was quoted as saying in this newspaper: "My time is super-valuable."
     That sentiment clung to me for days, like grime, and I felt the need to steam it away.
     I greet Jimmy, who—after not seeing me for at least a year—asks about my brother. "He's real busy," I say. Jimmy steers me over to say hello to his dad, Joe.
     Joe Colucci, the owner of the baths, is 92 years old. He's a former Kaiser-Frazer dealer. That was a kind of car. Before selling cars, he was a bigshot with the Herald-American. That was a newspaper.
     We talk. I tell Joe he's looking good. "I'm a cripple," he says, pointing to an aluminum walker that he didn't have last time I saw him.
     The baths are one of what I call "second-tier Chicago treasures." The first tier are places like the Water Tower or the Art Institute. They're institutions that are not going anywhere. You don't pass the Water Tower and worry: "Boy, I hope nobody decides to pull that down." You don't pay your entrance fee at the Art Institute and think: "There! That'll keep them in business for another day."
     But the second tier—they are also institutions, they also make Chicago what it is. But their futures are less certain. When I drove over to the baths, for a frightening moment, I thought they were gone. I would have been shocked but not surprised. Who can spare a few hours to sit and take the heat? We're all busy. Our time is super-valuable.
     Some institutions shift: Wrigley Field used to be second tier; now it seems safely first tier. The Music Box Theater on Southport is second tier, bucking the huge social shift caused by videotape. You buy a ticket, you not only see a classic movie, but also perform an important civic duty.
     The baths are swimming against a social current even stronger than videotape—indoor plumbing. When they were built, in 1906, few working-class people had their own bathrooms. You shared. They were crowded and foul. Going to a public bath was a luxury. The Park District ran dozens of them. There were dozens more private bathhouses. Only Division Street is left—a Roman senator could walk in, take one look at the hot and cold pools, the masseurs, the birch branches, and know exactly what was going on.
     Downstairs is eerie with no one in it. The big empty shower room, the fixtures high up on the wall, cascades of water pouring from them. None of those modern austerity fixtures, hurling a trickle against your chest.
     The empty steam room. I take the worn piece of wood—it might have once been a 2 x 4, and lift the handle on the metal oven door. It clangs open, and I stoke a half dozen scoops of water from a large bucket onto the glowing red stones—you have to do it just right or you'll scald yourself. The steam rolls out of the oven, and I can feel the heat rising as I take my seat on the dark wooden benches.
     After about 45 minutes, I go upstairs to the sleeping room, to get a massage. The sleeping room is a large, dimly lit chamber, with six metal single cots and two massage tables. I don't think there's another room like it in the city. You lie on your back, on a single metal bed fitted with clean sheets, and look at that pressed tin ceiling, painted white, with flickering shadows from the spinning fans. It's an image out of Ellis Island, out of Nelson Algren.
     A brief rest, then back downstairs, for more heat, a scrubbing with a rough sponge, a dip in the cold pool, more heat. A handful of customers—no more than six—arrive by noon. I had planned on spending two hours, but accidentally spent four. Difficult to pull yourself away from the steam room—so hot, it makes all the so-called saunas in health clubs seem like tepid, moist places. Will it be here next time I come back?
     Where else can you sit, parboiling in the heat, waiting for the moment when you seize one of the black rubber buckets filling under the taps and dump a blast of revivifying cold water over your head? That sounds harsh, but feels great. It wakes you up. It makes you feel super-valuable.

              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 28, 1998


  1. Like Algren's Neon Wilderness, the city transforms itself trying hard to erase its past. I enjoy reading about the changes that have occurred and how important and necessary some of those things were to the every day person. We should change, certainly, but we should also learn and try to remember what life once was like. Some of these changes happen within a single lifetime, and hearing the stories of those who experienced those changes is why I read your work. Like Terkel and Algren, the common man and his struggles are not merely written off as unimportant

  2. Not a sauna person, but you make me wish I were.


  3. A few things your Roman Senator would miss. He would be able to bring along a slave to scrape the sweat and oils off his body with a metal paddle called a strigil. Also, until that old spoilsport the Emperor Hadrian barred the practice, both sexes bathed together.


  4. My grandfather, father, and uncles grew up around the old Luxor Baths on North Avenue. When it had a short-lived revival in the Eighties, I talked my first wife into going there. It was co-ed and we wore bathing suits. The place was ancient and quite decrepit but I enjoyed it immensely. My wife...not so much. The thriving cockroach population didn't help. Neither did the couple having sex in one of the hot pools. We never went back. Luxor Baths closed down for good a few years later.

  5. Cleveland has one remaining bathhouse, known as "The Shvitz", in a sketchy part of town on the East Side. It's run almost like a Twenties speakeasy...merely having money or the gift of gab isn't always enough to gain admittance. You have to know somebody or be recommended by somebody who knows somebody. Otherwise, you don't get past the parking lot.


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