carrying on regardless

Since the nineteenth century, the Mount Morris bathhouse has survived punctured realty bubbles, white flight, home plumbing, moral crusades, wars, racism, depression, fashion, homelessness and AIDS. A beautiful article in the NYTimes today helps us to understand how.

The Mount Morris bathhouse, the only one in the city that caters to gay blacks, has been operating continuously since 1893 and survived the [early 80's bathhouse crackdown when panicked state officials banned many homosexual gathering places, but did little else] essentially for two reasons. First, it is far from the city's gay meccas, on a quiet, unassuming block of Madison Avenue at East 125th Street, across the street from the offices of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Second, it has matured through the years, remaining a place to meet new people and enjoy a steam, but with the reality of the city health code's prohibition on open sex.

"I always tell the clients, `If I can't bring my wife down here, it isn't right,' " said Walter Fitzer, who owns the place.

These particular baths offer much more than a place to "meet new people and enjoy a steam."
It may also be the only bathhouse anywhere to employ an education director. His name is Dr. Eugene A. Lawson, and he has worked as a principal at a handful of New York public and private schools.

Five nights a week, Dr. Lawson, whose degree is in education, oversees a lecture series in the back room, where speakers from advocacy groups like the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Minority Task Force on AIDS discuss topics of particular interest to gay men. There are lectures on being gay in high school and on gay men raising families.

"A lot of our fellows are bisexual," Dr. Lawson said, "so we have lectures on that subject, too."

Six years ago, Dr. Lawson persuaded a handful of teachers, all bathhouse regulars, to start a G.E.D. program for local youths who had dropped out of school. Today, the program counts 270 students.

"It's a community thing," Dr. Lawson said proudly.

Mr. Fitzer does his own work for the community. He allows a dozen or so homeless men to pay $20 a night to sleep in the bedrooms, not much bigger than telephone booths, which once had holes drilled in their walls to facilitate anonymous gay sex.

"They have to be out in the morning and everything they have goes with them," Mr. Fitzer said. "I can't run a hotel, but it's the least that I can do."

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Published on January 19, 2003 1:51 PM.

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