The 10th Street Baths Are Back on Their Glorious Bullshit
It’s not an insignificant thing in this shitty, late-stage world to have a place of your own that doesn’t change.
7:02 PM EDT on May 18, 2022
Perhaps it was inevitable that a place that for 120 years has been filled with old guys sitting around complaining, the Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street, is, once again, filled with slightly less old guys sitting around complaining.
"Let me start by saying that I love that place," baths customer Christian Hansen was saying the other day, sounding a bit like a lover spurned. See, after the baths reopened from its 15-month pandemic slumber in late December, Hansen learned that the six-schvitz pass that he'd bought for $300 would no longer be honored seven days a week. Now, he could only use it on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays—days when he needs to work, not sit in a 190-degree sauna with old men whining about their psoriasis.
"It’s an awesome place. I happily spend my money there. I have had joyous, wonderful visits with friends," Hansen said. "But it's not cool to take my money and then not honor the passes! And then be rude when I ask about it. Though, of course, I understand that rudeness is kind of a thing there."
Hansen is by no means the only dupe who plunked down good money on the eve of a global pandemic only to see their access to the baths limited to the shoulder days. Alex Shephard also bought a new six-time pass just before the baths closed in March 2020, and he, too, is steamed as only a 10th Street Baths customer can be.
"I'm sympathetic to the idea that this is a small business that had no cash flow for two years, but we’re like, 'You're kinda screwing us over just to screw us over.' And, yes, I get that part of the appeal of the Russian Baths is being treated like shit, but this goes too far. They changed the rules."
The Baths' half-time manager Dmitry Shapiro (more on that arrangement later!) says he'll roll over any unused pre-COVID passes into new passes that are usable all week, and reiterated that all passes will be honored, but Shephard said he doesn’t want to throw good money after bad on the hope that the Baths will be honorable.
"No, fuck that," he said.
Like Hansen, Shephard admitted that the baths have him over a barrel (preferably one filled with ice cold water).
"We all know that going there, you agree to a certain level of conflict, like being yelled at or being berated into buying a new pass when you use the last one up," he said. "But of course, I'll keep going. I don't want the baths to go away, and they know that, too. You can't get that experience anywhere else in the city. What? You want me to go to the bathhouse on Fulton Street and hang out with fucking bankers? I want to go where Rutherford B. Hayes could have schvitzed."
Hayes died in 1893, one year after the baths opened, and never sweated there, but the point is clear: You can’t replace the Russian and Turkish Baths. They were there for Sinatra, for Belushi (and is that McConaughey in that photo near the locker room?), and they'll still be there for Mayor Eric Adams, who walked by the other day and claimed he’d be back soon to swing his big swagger around. That the baths are prospering is no small feat, given that now they have more competition than at any time since the glorious pre-AIDS bathhouse halcyon. When you could go to Spa Castle, why would you go to what the Times once so accurately dubbed "Spa Tenement"?
I can answer that: I’m a former baths regular who shares Shephard and Hansen's love-hate relationship with the place. Pre-pandemic, going there always felt a bit like being beaten up—and that's before you paid an old Russian man $40 above the now $55 admission price to smack you with a bundle of oak leaf branches and oil.
But it's also not an insignificant thing in this shitty, late-stage world to have a place of your own that doesn’t change. Yes, the baths now openly court today's 15-minute pop stars on its slightly creepy Instagram page, but I'd gladly allow Jeremy Allen White (Who? Exactly!) to sweat next to me as long as some old kvetcher with a beluga whale of a midsection is on the other bench (wait, sorry, that was just Pauly Shore. My bad).
A pandemic renovation has transformed the once-cramped and dingy lobby into a clean, bright, but not too cheerful space. The locker rooms, which used to be filled with dank cots filled with alter kockers knocked out from the heat, are now tidy. Downstairs remains unchanged: The Russian room (190-plus degrees), the showers, the treatment rooms, the steam rooms (wet heat at around 105 degrees), the Turkish sauna (wet and dry at around 175 degrees), the Redwood room (bone dry at 180 degrees) and the cold bath (a Manhattan kitchen-sized pool with 40-degree water) appear exactly as they have for at least 40 years.
The only change is that the ratio of longtime customers to hipster customers has shifted, but only slightly. People in skimpy yellow-polka dot bikinis have long mingled with old Polish men from the neighborhood who fill a Speedo like a kielbasa fills a casing, and the baths have survived nonetheless.
What has not survived is the (possibly fictional) tension between co-owners David Shapiro and Boris Tuberman, who have split the year into a yin-yang of alternating weeks of management, so that "David day" cardholders can only go on a "David Day" and "Boris day" cardholders can only go on a "Boris Day."
Reporters have long described the arrangement as the equivalent of a shtetl grudge match over a milk-cow. And now we'll never know: Shapiro died just as the pandemic began—though not of COVID, his son said—and Tuberman has retired to Florida. The marked divisions in their management styles—Boris kept all his records on paper cards and Polaroids, while David instituted modern technology and even courted a new generation of customers with Groupons—are now barely noticeable (on Boris days, the Plexiglas spit screen disappears). Where they used to have alternative chefs to serve up mediocre Russian food and artery clogging steaks, there's now a single chef offering slightly lighter, definitely more palatable, fare (the borscht, for example, is vegan, and there is good beer on tap and excellent salmon).
The thing is, the David-Boris feud never really stood up to scrutiny. A seminal Times story from 2016 even caught Dmitry Shapiro—remember, he's David's son! —schvitzing on a Boris day. Let that sink in: Team David was schvitizing… on a Boris day!
And despite all the talk of the two men fighting, the fact is that Shapiro and Tuberman merely set up separate corporations after buying out a third partner—likely more a tax arrangement than anything medieval.
These days, newcomers would probably not even notice whose "day" it is. You enter, you pay your admission, you schvitz. Simple.
Still, the Boris-David "feud" itches like that old guy's dermatitis. So I kept picking at it. The other day, an old guy at the baths—a guy I'd seen many times over the years, the one who hands out big red grapes to the wilting clientele—told me the apocryphal story of the David-Boris "feud."
"It goes like this," the old timer said. "Back in the 1970s, the baths had sex slaves who would go into the treatment rooms and blow the customers. Boris and David had a bag man who bribed the Fifth Precinct to look the other way. But then the bag man died and the whole arrangement fell apart. So they set up separate companies."
We reached out to Dmitry Shapiro and he found that story hilarious.
"That’s the most amazing story I've ever heard and not a word of it is true," Shapiro said. “The story of Boris and David's feud isn't sexy or interesting. Boris liked to run the place his way. David ran it his way. David used to work the early part of the week so he could spend time with my brother and I as kids, with Boris working weekends. When that became untenable, they worked alternate weeks, keeping the proceeds of the week, but splitting all the bills. The reason there's separate weeks is because we can. (I don’t mind taking half a year off)."
So why continue this ridiculous "Boris day" and "David day" system if, basically, the baths are run pretty much the same no matter what "week" it is? Shapiro had an answer for that, too.
"My team gets along well with Boris's team, which is now led by his grandson, but there is no plan to change the schedule," Shapiro said. "The bathhouse has survived world wars, 9/11, multiple market crashes and much more. It's a 130-year-old institution."
But the truly discerning sweaters will always know whose "day" it is: The temperatures of the saunas and steam rooms go up about 10 degrees—and the cold bath down a commensurate amount—on Boris days.
This was confirmed during a recent visit on a Boris day, when the thermometer in the Russian room was disabled and the air was so stifling that it felt like individual hairs had been replaced in their follicles by lighted matches. "His Fraudulency Hayes" missed out on this feeling, but thankfully, we still have it.
This story has been updated to reflect that the Russian & Turkish Baths has stated that all passes purchased before the pandemic will eventually be honored.
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