Boston Bathhouses

By R.D. ROSEN  |  July 20, 2009

I was told, though, that there are some who live in apartments without baths who still shun the communal showers. "They don't go," one North Ender told me, "because they sceve it." (sceve is a colloquialism that derives from schievoso, which translates as "dirty, rotten, stomach-turning.") In truth, the men's shower rooms (I cannot vouch for the women's) are rather minimalist, dark, dank sancta of cement and black slate. "But if you think that people here are going to complain about the shower situation in the North End," I was informed, "you're wrong."

The reason is that, because of the generally small dimensions of North End apartments, the installation of a shower would in many cases use up an entire room, a sacrifice that families crowded for living space are understandably unwilling to make. In addition, plumbing systems tend to be antiquated in the North End, and the renovation necessary to build a shower would cost the tenant substantially in the form of a rent increase. Rents in the North End are still very modest (though not so modest as they were as little as 15 years ago when four or five rooms went for $17 a month), and any rent increase would be disproportionately high.

Technically it is a violation of the Boston Housing Code for an apartment not to have a tub or shower (Section 3.1), but the Housing Inspection Department, respecting this community homeostasis, permits a variance of the code when it's physically undesirable (for the landlords) to install facilities. Of course, it's often in a landlord's interest to insist on the impossibility of building showers if he's not in the mood for capital outlays. Though undoubtedly many families actually prefer not to sacrifice living space to a bath tub, others desire facilities but are continually put off. Charlie Falco, manager of the North End's Little City Hall, does not think it's a good idea to push too hard for showers "because it would start chaos," and perhaps he's right that the watering of the North End would upset some precarious ethnic balance. "I don't like to see the overhaul of the North End," Falco goes on, eyeing the disruptions already caused by a growing waterfront population and the C-2 parcel. "It's quaint here. I don't want to see any modern."

The Harmonica Man

So in a time when every man's right to privacy has spawned suburban populations teeming with social isolationists, when so many modern conveniences have conspired to produce in us the illusion that every act is solitary, the public baths speak for our truer nature. The Harmonica Man, Frank Masucci, and Tony Sullivan take pride in their work because, unlike parking valets or ice cream vendors, they help provide a fundamental service.

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