The Mt. Morris Baths in Harlem were closed by the New York City Department of Buildings for ‘structural problems’ in 2003. The Turkish bath first opened in the 1920s. Shortly after running water flowed freely within the homes of New Yorkers by the late 1950’s, the spa naturally was converted into a gay bath house, a place for the closeted to wash themselves clean. Its closure for not meeting building code guidelines four years ago seems legitimate considering its shabby appearance, although many promiscuous Black and Latino men in New York believe that the structural citation from the Buildings Department was a quiet way for the city to stop the flow of hot man-on-man sex.
When other bathhouses were closed in the 1980s, the gay community went berserk. For reasons unknown, the Turkish Bath in Harlem was not affected by the AIDS scare or the bath house closures. It stayed open for several more decades. Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg didn’t want to hear the fags scream at him like they did Ed Kotch in 1985 when the other watering holes were boarded up.
The dusty, mildew infested underground cruising area was more than a place where ‘well- hung’ men of color could swim into ‘submissive bottoms’. The baths also served as a temporary shelter for the homeless. For just $15 a night, with a refundable $5 deposit, those without a home and running water were able to have their own private room for the evening without having to risk sleeping in one of the dangerous New York City shelters. The exhausted, weary, poor, and often straight homeless men thought nothing of the queers roaming around searching for quickies. They were happy to have air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.Queers didn’t care that the homeless were sharing space at Mt.Morris.The steady flow of cash from horny gay men offered an alternative shelter for the homeless. The homos didn’t seem to mind the hobos, although the risk of caching athlete’s foot and HIV was always prevelant.
I wore flip-flops.
I bumped into several homeless men while making my rounds there over the years. They simply grunted and moved to the side of the carpeted hallways when I swished by in my white towel wrapped tightly around mid- section. A few of the homeless joined in on the fun. When everyone runs around in a white towel, it’s hard to determine who is homeless and who is not.
When AIDS steamed its way through New York City in the 1980s, the Department of Health quickly closed down other well known and popular queer bathhouses like the Continental Baths in Midtown in an effort to stop the spread of the deadly HIV virus. Mt. Morris survived the crisis.
Medical authorities first believed that the gay- related immune deficiency syndrome (GRID) was incubated in such bath houses. The warm, steamy interiors of the saunas seemed a natural breeding ground for viruses like HIV and some researchers still believe that “Patient Zero”, a sluttish airline steward was the one to carry the death sentence from city to city, bath house to bath house, in every gay community north of the Congo.
Whether or not the spread of AIDS in America was caused by scandalous places of bathing or sluts like me may never really be known. The truth about Mt.Morris was that the staff always handed out three condoms and free lubricant along with clean towels to all its guests—including the homeless.
Prior to closing down the Mount Morris Baths, city building inspectors should have conducted an investigation of the bath houses of the African imigrants who were living in the Bronx as polygamists. Recently, two families were burnt from their faulty dwellings there and many lives were lost.
The Mt. Morris Baths of Harlem may have one day caved in from the ware and tare of the years, but most likely, the structure would never have burned down like the homes of the illegal aliens in the Bronx.
The homeless problem in New York is far worse than the immigration issue. It’s time for the Department of Buildings to take a look at the homeless shelters in town– those are some fragile looking structures too!
AIDS continues to spread, but not so prevalently in the gay community. Perhaps it’s time to re-assess the housing situation here and fight the growing homeless problem with real solutions, like a super-chain of bath houses run by the people at Starbucks.
I’ll be there in my flip flops practicing polygamy again!
This story inspired the book–