Mount Morris Baths—Steam & Turkish
According to Aviva Stampfer, a writer on the Place Matters website, a joint project of City Lore and the New York Municipal Art Society, the Mount Morris Baths was founded in 1898 by a group of Jewish doctors, when Turkish (hot air) baths were an important part of the religious and social traditions of Eastern European Jews. The doctors lived on the upper floors, using the basement as a professional spa. In the 1920s, Finnish immigrant Hugo Koivenon bought the baths and incorporated Finnish features such as “needle showers” and vitea treatments. East Harlem residents (especially those living in the neighborhood’s many cold water flats) came for the sauna, steam bath and therapeutic pool. This was the sign to the Mount Morris Baths as you looked down the stairs at its entrance on the basement level, below the street and somewhat out of view of the sidewalk passersby. The plastic illuminated sign that hung high up over its entrance and said “Turkish Baths—Mt. Morris— Men Only” harkened back to a time when there weren’t many legal challenges based on gender discrimination for entering a public place as this. As you walked in, there were safe-sex brochures and free condoms available, although the signs prohibiting explicit sex on the premises juxtaposed to the posters about safe sex seemed contradictory. The place had a musty smell, and I imagine that there were still some of the original water molecules circulating in the fetid, steamy mist since itsmaiden shvitz of 1898.
In a January 2003 article for the New York Times, journalist Alan Feuer provided the following more recent historical context about this bathhouse: Twenty years ago, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the gay bathhouse scene was nearly run out of town when state officials enacted a raft of laws banning many homosexual gathering places. The New St. Marks Baths in the East Village, for example, was shut in 1985 by the City Department of Health and was replaced nine years later by a video rental store.
The Mount Morris bathhouse, the only one in the city that caters to gay blacks, has been operating continuously since 1893 and survived the crackdown essentially for two reasons. First, it is far from the city’s gay meccas, on a quiet, unassuming block of Madison Avenue at East 125th Street, across the street from the offices of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Second, it has matured through the years, remaining a place to meet new people and enjoy a steam, but with the reality of the city health code’s prohibition on open sex. Apparently, the owner at the time, Walter Fitzer, a retired mechanical engineer and volunteer firefighter from Lynbrook, New York, seemed “an unlikely candidate [to Feuer] to be running a bathhouse known for attracting gay black men.” Notwithstanding, it was my experience growing up gay in New York City that most of the bars and bathhouses were owned by straight, white men. Fitzer told Feuer in his interview, “‘I always tell the clients, ‘If I can’t bring my wife down here, it isn’t right.’” Having been a patron of this establishment in the late 1980s when I was living in Harlem before it was destroyed by what the city called “urban renewal,” I couldn’t imagine anyone bringing their wife to Mount Morris. It was by no means a Plato’s Retreat, which was a sex club that opened in 1977 in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel that did cater to a more “ecumenical” crowd. One of my favorite understatements from Fitzer in this interview is: “Bathhouses have been gay since the days of the Greeks. It’s no big secret.” According to Feuer, Fitzer also claimed, “Harlem royalty like Joe Louis and Sam Cooke used to sweat here years ago, and it is nothing to see French tourists, straight businessmen and Hasidic Jews perspiring in the steam room, side by side.”
On the Place Matters website, Stampfer also presented the following: Mount Morris attracted a mixed clientele that included area residents and patients of nearby North General Hospital. Mount Morris became known as well for its emphasis on sex education, providing condoms, lubricant, and brochures, and also hiring an education director who held a lecture series five nights a week on topics of interest to gay men, and ran a popular G.E.D. program. Despite the discrepancies in the year this mikva or ritual Jewish bath was founded, for at least seventy of the over one hundred years this establishment was operating, it was frequented chiefly by gay African American men. Many people, like myself, wondered why this sauna was overlooked for nearly a decade when gay bathhouses were systematically closed during the ’80s by the New York City Department of Health in its hasty response to the AIDS crisis. And why had it survived unscathed? Didn’t New York City health commissioner Stephen Joseph and the Koch administration care enough about black male homosexuals? I don’t believe it was left open out of any consideration by Koch for the services Mount Morris provided. For the most part, the city was totally unprepared for the AIDS crisis when it hit with a vengeance.
I remember challenging Koch in August 1987 during his obligatory momentary appearance at the New York City chapter of Parents of Gays annual awards dinner when I asked him why there wasn’t a public service campaign on safe sex aimed at New York City’s LGBT community, as there was in San Francisco. Koch’s typical flippant response was, “Oh, the gays here know what to do.” So I began chanting, “You’re full of shit” and was joined by my friend Andy Humm and others until Koch stormed out of the banquet hall. Urban legend has it that later that evening on the news, it was said that Koch collapsed in Chinatown after overeating at one of his favorite restaurants.
In a recent telephone conversation with my longtime friend and journalist Andy Humm (Gay City News), he commented to me that it was fortuitous that Mount Morris had remained open as long as it did after the bathhouse closings since it provided much-needed services to its community. In addition, the pioneering and exemplary work of the Minority AIDS Task Force (1985), Harlem United (1988) and other grassroots community organizations that targeted black and Latino populations that weren’t publicly gay helped an ailing community that was for the most part in denial. Sadly, I was alerted by e-mails through my website of the sauna’s closing in 2003 and wondered why there wasn’t the same uproar in the gay community as there was over the closing of the Wall Street Sauna in February 2004. Of course, south of 110th Street there were private AIDS organizations like Gay Men’s Health Crisis (1981) and the AIDS Resource Center (Bailey House, 1983) that had been mobilized since the onset of the epidemic and provided services initially for self-identified gay men, usually white, with regard to education about AIDS prevention, medical and financial counseling and advocacy. Humm also reminded me that in the early days of ACT UP, there were two camps with totally divergent ideologies: one, those who wanted to aid the City of New York in creating guidelines for establishments where public sex was a potential in an attempt to keep them open; and two, those who wanted no restrictions at all on public spaces because any limitations would be an infringement of their personal freedoms.
Ultimately, both camps lost the battle because many of these sex establishments that provided the only reliable sources of HIV/AIDS prevention materials were closed in spite of their attempts to work with the failures of the Koch administration. Today, I have heard, the sex clubs are opening up again and are filled with young people who did not experience the horror of disease, loss and grief as we did as young people living through the height of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s. Remember, folks—the AIDS crisis is not over!