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Russian Turkish Baths

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Public bath house in the Russian & Turkish tradition

Place Details

Borough : Manhattan
Neighborhood : East Village
Pools, Gathering Place

Place Matters Profile

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...

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On The Web

Russian and Turkish Baths, Inc.


Jill Bressler (Cooper Union)

The Russian Turkish Bathhouse is the people's spa on the Lower East Side, where for $20 you get to schvitz and gossip with old people and young people from every background imaginable. For a little more you can get a Russian-style exfoliation, which involves stretching out on the top wooden plank in the cave-like Russian room while someone lathers your body with peppermint soap, beats you with oak leaves then has you plunge into icy cold water.

Ed Rosenfeld (Cooper Union)

In the days when the Lower East Side tenements contained the mass of 600,000 mostly unwashed Jewish immigrants, and the population of Manhattan was 1,000,000 greater than it is today, most apartments had cold water only and residents were lucky if there was tub in the kitchen. Public baths flourished, developed with both private and public funds. Today, there is only one remaining, the rest having, for better or worse, fallen prey to the increasing affluence of our society and the concomitant privatization of formerly social activities.

The baths are entered from a non-descript tenement building on an East Village side street. You walk down creaking stairs to the baths in the basement. At a scarred wooden counter you pay your admission fee and collect a locker key, towel and worn bathrobe. Across from the counter is a food service area and some small tables where you can buy fruit juice and soda or light fare like yogurt and fruit. To the right in the same large room are the lockers. Both males and females strip off their street clothes and don bathing suits under the robe. For those who want a nap, the bunk room lies beyond. We chose to save that for later.

I reserve a session with a masseuse and head for the baths below. It is somewhat like descending into a moist Hades. There are several choices for bathing in the dimly lit subterranean cavern. I am glad that I can't see that well, as I have removed my glasses. Who knows what deferred maintenance the light of day would show?

I check out the pool, which is about 20 feet long, with stairs and a railing at one end, and several people standing or treading water in its deep, dark end. I decide to start with the Turkish, or steam bath. It is crowded with people, sitting on tiered benches along the side. Familiar with this kind of bath, I relax and deeply breathe the menthol scented steam.

After 15 minutes I am relaxed and ready for a new experience. I skip the pool--too cold--and head for the Russian bath. Inside a fairly large room are quite a few people, also lounging on tiered benches, while attendants stoke a large furnace and pour water on it. The heat here is dry like in a sauna, not wet. I pay extra to have an attendant beat me with birch switches while I lie on a bench. The effect is stimulating, but also relaxing at the same time. Afterwards, I take a quick dip in the pool. I don't have the fortitude to stay long, as do many of the older men.

I go upstairs, past the tables where people in groups of 3's and 4's are chatting and having a snack. I head for the bunk room and have a nap, while I am waiting for my massage. Forty minutes later I am ready and I head upstairs.

The masseuse is a burly Russian who has me lie on a firm padded table. He pounds my body like a piece of veal. He uses his fingers to massage my muscles so deeply that it feels like he is trying to attack my vital organs. I tell him to let up and he does a bit, but I leave there wishing I had stuck to the birch branch whipping.

Anonymous Nominator

One of few remaining traditional bath houses in New York City--you feel like you've stepped back in time.

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