When I asked a couple of Russian friends about the city’s bathhouses, they recounted childhood memories of eucalyptus-scented steam and saunas packed full of sweating family members. New York City and the surrounding boroughs indeed have a long tradition of public bathhouses. In the early 1900s there were dozens of public bathhouses throughout the city. These baths were built more for sanitary reasons than for social; most apartment buildings did not have indoor plumbing. From the 1960s to the 1980s, several New York bathhouses became known as gay meeting places. In the eighties, many of these bathhouses were raided and closed down under the pretense that they were a breeding ground for HIV. Today, public bathhouses are virtually non-existent, while day spas seem to multiply like soft, well-groomed rabbits around the greater New York area. However, deep in Brooklyn, away from Manhattan’s high-end facials, foot rubs, reiki, and aromatherapy, there are at least three Russian baths open to the public and two more currently under construction.
None of the baths advertise in traditional ways. The Kensington Russian Bania is listed in the phonebook under "Bathtubs and Fixtures." The Mermaid Spa in Sea Gate used to advertise on Russian satellite television, and the Russian Baths in Sheepshead Bay have a link for those who can read Russian on russianny.com. All three have saunas, steam rooms, hot and cold pools, and cafes. All offer some kind of massage or salt scrub as well as traditional platza, a treatment consisting of being scrubbed with hot soapy water, lashed with oak leaves, and then doused with five-gallon buckets of ice cold water.
What makes each of these baths truly unique is how they function as organic community centers for the Russian populations that use them. The people who frequent each banya promote it within their own community of friends and family, creating an atmosphere that feels more like a social club than a business open to the public. Others are made to feel welcome, but there is no effort being made to attract clientele outside of personal and family networks. While I was there people were friendly and spoke to me in Russian. I usually replied with a heat-induced, dumbfounded look. At that point people usually realized that I didn’t speak Russian, and that I had no idea how long it was appropriate to remain in a sauna. I was given tips, advice, and pointed in the right direction of the cool-down pool. At one banya my girlfriend was even given a free platzka. At most of the baths it seemed that we were the only non-Russians there. This is partially because all of the baths rely primarily on word-of-mouth to bring the local Russian community to them. For the most part, it seems to work. While not packed to capacity, the baths definitely jump with activity on late Friday afternoons and early evenings.
Housed next to a row of auto body garages in Kensington, the Bania Inc. Russian-Turkish Baths in Kensington has been owned and run by sisters Alona and Victoria Kruglak since 1994. Alona is the mistress of the bath, always chatting with clients and keeping an eye on every corner of the facility while walking around in a thick terrycloth robe with a white towel wrapped around her head. She led me through the main area, a cavernous marble and tile room with a hot tub and cold pool, to a large common seating area. "This is a real community space. There are people who have been coming here for years. People know each other by name because they come on the same day, meet each other and share food and conversation. The culture of this bania is a very open one."
Distancing the traditional Russian banya from the stereotype of bathhouses as a meeting place for casual sexual encounters, Alona asserts, "The Russian bathhouse is quite different. This is definitely not a pick-up spot. It’s a cultural thing, like a community center. I went to bath houses with my father when I was growing up…they’re as common in Russia as McDonald's is here." On one recent early Friday evening there were groups of friends sitting in plastic chairs drinking juice and snacking on herring from the attached café. During our conversation older potbellied men, young parents with their children, and chatting couples, all in bathing suits, ambled leisurely from sauna to steam room to cold pool. Everyone was dressed modestly, in shorts or bathing suits. Nudity is not permitted. If you forget your bathing suit, like I did, you’ll be forced to wear whatever spares the management keeps lying around: white shorts (size small) or fluorescent flowered nylon jams for males, T-shirts and the same shorts for females.
Sitting across from me in the steam room, obscured by the hot fog, Alona described some of the differences between the Russian banya and the spas in the U.S. "Sometimes Americans come here expecting to be pampered. The facilities here are pampering, but the treatments—platza, salt scrubs—are somewhat rugged… Here we believe that unless you’re really feeling something, you’re not getting the benefits."
My first platzka, which I received at Alona’s bath, was a testament to this philosophy: There was definitely some pain involved, but I left feeling refreshed and energized. The platzka was administered by a professional leaf-beater named Oleg. I lay flat on my stomach on the third and hottest tier of the sauna while Oleg brushed hot, soapy water on my back with a large bunch of oak leaves and then proceeded to whip me with them. Every few minutes he would dump a five-gallon bucket of ice cold water over me, shocking me out of the hazy heat. Halfway through the treatment Oleg took a break to pour a bucketful of icy water over himself. He then returned to finish my treatment, ordering me to flip over onto my back for round two.
If you’ve never been there before, it’s easy to walk right past the Russian Bath in Sheepshead Bay. Tucked in an alleyway side street off of Gravesend Neck Road since 1980, one feature of this bath is its hockey theme. On the walls hang framed jerseys of famous Russian players and the café floor is tiled white with red and blue lines to resemble a hockey rink. There are even goals on either side of the café. Manager Michael Grinberg explained that many famous hockey players come to the bath to relax. He motions to a wall of signed jerseys and photos to underline this point.
In contrast to the echoing main room at the Russian Bania in Kensington, this bath has low ceilings and fluorescent lights with a full-sized swimming pool as its centerpiece. On a Friday afternoon there were many families seated around tables and young kids splashing in the pool. As evening approached, the bath started to get more crowded with groups of Russian twenty-somethings.
Grinberg stresses that the banya reaches out to people through word of mouth. "We have some information on www.russianny.com, but for the most part, one friend tells another, and we become more and more popular. Of the people who come here, about 80 percent are Russian. Some Turkish and Jewish as well." I asked Michael if he used the facilities himself. "I use it once or twice a week. This is healthy—any more than that is hard on your heart."
The Mermaid Spa in Sea Gate is by far the most remote of the three Russian baths, but it is the most modern and elaborate facility. It is also the newest and largest, housed in a building that was formerly a supermarket. The entire facility is finished with wood and slate and glows with ambient lighting. Co-owner Zina Kotlyar and her husband wanted to create an environment that was similar to an old style banya in Russia. "Marble is so cold, wood helps you to feel warmer." In addition to its stylish décor, a unique feature of this banya is that the cold plunge pool is fed by a chute carrying crushed ice. In the main common area people gathered to talk while munching on fresh watermelon and juice—as opposed to the heavier fare of beer and herring which, although available at Mermaid Spa, seemed to be the standard fare at the other baths.
On a Friday evening this bath seems to attract a somewhat younger and hipper Russian crowd than the other two banyas. Zina explained that there is a different atmosphere depending on what time of day or week you visit the bath. On weekends, she explained, the spa is filled with families.
The bath’s location makes it a unique gathering place for the Russian population in Brighton Beach and Coney Island. It’s on the edge of Sea Gate, a small gated, waterfront community east of Coney Island. Zina and her husband opened the bathhouse because they saw that there was a need in the local community for a place to gather, to relax, and to sweat. Zina says that the waterfront in Sea Gate is the cleanest in Brooklyn. During the winter, visitors heat up in the steam room and then run outside to plunge into the ocean for a swim before returning again, to warm up in the sauna.
The Russian banyas aren’t for everyone. The saunas are scorching and the treatments, to the uninitiated, are a little on the rough side. However, once you acclimate to the temperature and take a moment to relax in the common area, the invigorating powers of the baths, for the individual bather as well as the Russian communities which they serve, are undeniable.
Bania Inc. Russian-Turkish Baths. In 2007 Bania Inc. closed and reopened as Coney-Island Banya http://coneyislandbanya.com/
602 Coney Island Avenue
Directions: Q train to Cortelyou stop. B103 north to Coney Island Avenue and Matthews St. Or B68 and B29 to Coney Island Ave and Matthews.
Car: Prospect Expw to Ocean Avenue. Left on Beverly, Right on Coney Island Avenue.
Hours: M-F 10 a.m.-12 a.m. Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-12a.m.
Admission: $23 Platzka: $30 Scrubs (salt or honey): $60 per hour (call for appointment).
Facilities: sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, cold pool, outdoor sun deck, café.
1200 Gravesend Neck Road (between Homecrest & E. 13th St.)
Directions: Q train to Neck Road stop. Walk West (street numbers descending) just past 13th Street on Gravesend Neck Road.
Car: Prospect Expwy to Ocean Avenue. Left on Gravesend Neck Road.
Hours: M-F 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat-Sun 7 a.m.-11 p.m.
Admission: $23 Deposit Box/Lockers: $1 Platzka: $25 treatment (average 20 min.).
Massage: $60 per hour.
Facilities: swimming pool, sauna, steam room, massage room, outdoor seating area, hockey-themed café.
3701 Mermaid Avenue
Directions: B36 bus to west 37th and Mermaid Avenue
Car: Belt Pkwy to Cropsey Avenue, right on Mermaid Avenue to West 37th St.
Hours: M-F 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat-Sun 7 a.m.-11 p.m.
Admission: $23. $15 for children Platzka: $15.
Facilities: sauna, steam room, hot tub, warm tub, cold pool, ice cold plunge pool, restaurant, ocean access.
Todd Chandler is an educator and musician living in Red Hook.