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Gay bathhouses nationwide facing uncertain future

Saturday, August 23, 2014
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bathhousesDamian Dovarganes, AP

A patron enters the North Hollywood Spa in Los Angeles. Gay bathhouses that once were shut down by laws or public outcry are facing a new pressure: lack of interest. A generation ago, bathhouses thrived at society’s fringes, offering a discreet haven where men could meet. To draw in customers, owners are rebranding clubs as open and upscale: renovating facilities, marketing on social media, and adding Wi-Fi, house DJs and meet-and-greets with adult film stars.

LOS ANGELES — Gay bathhouses that once remained in the shadows to stay in business are now seeking attention to keep their doors open.

Some are doing aggressive online advertising and community outreach. Others tout their upscale amenities like plush towels and marble baths. A bathhouse in Ohio has even added hotel rooms and a nightclub.

The front desk of the North Hollywood Spa in Los Angeles.Damian Dovarganes, AP

The front desk of the North Hollywood Spa in Los Angeles.

Gone are the days when bathhouses drew crowds just by offering a discreet place for gays to meet, share saunas and, often, have sex.

“The acceptance of gays has changed the whole world. It’s taken away the need to sneak into back-alley places,” said Dennis Holding, 75, who owns a Miami-based bathhouse.

In the heyday of bathhouses in the late 1970s, there were nearly 200 gay bathhouses in cities across the U.S., but by 1990, the total had dropped to approximately 90, according to Damron, the publisher of an annual gay travel guide. In the last decade, bathhouses, including ones in San Diego, Syracuse, Seattle and San Antonio, have shut down and the total nationwide is less than 70. Most patrons are older.

Hollywood Spa — one of the largest bathhouses in Los Angeles, a city regarded as the country’s bathhouse capital — closed in April. Owner Peter D. Sykes said fewer customers and rising rent put an end to four decades in business.

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“Bathhouses were like dirty bookstores and parks: a venue to meet people,” said Sykes, who still owns the smaller North Hollywood Spa. “Today, you can go to the supermarket.”

Bathhouses date to the Roman Empire. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American bathhouses were built in many cities to maintain public hygiene among poor and immigrant communities. Chicago and Manhattan each had about 20 public bathhouses.

But the need for public places to wash up declined and by the 1950s and ’60s, bathhouses largely had become rendezvous spots for gays, prompting occasional raids because sodomy was still criminalized.

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