Head west on Division from Ashland and in the 1900 block, on the north side of the street, you’ll see a building that looks like an old bank. While the neighborhood was once a bit risky, it’s now completely safe, upscale, and laden with the telltale sushi places, sports bars, and coffee houses of urban gentrification.
Take a minute to look up as you approach the front door. You’re about to enter some living Chicago history: a genuine schvitz, an Eastern European bathhouse rebuilt to better than its glory days.
The Division Street Russian and Turkish Bath House first opened in (are you ready?) 1906. That’s right, the renamed and beautifully remodeled Red Square Chicago Spa is 113 years old.
Bathhouses are both ancient and cross-cultural
You can go to a banya in Russia, a 400-year-old hammam in Istanbul, a sauna in Finland, or a jjimjilbang in Korea and you’re still getting basically the same experience–a gender-segregated heated steam bath, sauna, or both.
At one time, with immigrants wanting to recreate one of the few pleasures of the old country, Chicago boasted dozens of bathhouses for just about every ethnic group. The Division Street establishment catered mainly to Russian Jews. My father, age ten at the time, went with my grandfather sometime around 1923. I myself went for the first time at about age 12 and remember only a dim, steamy environment filled with towel-clad fat and hairy Yiddish-speaking men who smoked cigars, pinched my cheek, and called me “Boychik!”
The experience kept me from returning for decades.
As the Jews moved to the suburbs and bought their own in-home saunas, and as Division Street started tanking in the 1960s, the fortunes of the bathhouse paralleled the decline. But patrons kept schvitzing, me included. During the years I periodically revisited, the bathhouse became more multicultural and by the time it closed, Yiddish seemed to have become extinct.
You’d hear more Russian and Spanish in the steam rooms than English. History was changing the baths yet again. Novelist Saul Bellow had been a regular, as was Jesse Jackson, Jesse White, and several pre-penitentiary Chicago aldermen.
The updated Red Square Chicago Spa is a marvel. First, and most important, are the separate facilities for women. A woman alone can enter, have an entire schvitz experience, including a massage, and feel completely at ease during her visit. (This was not necessarily the case with earlier bathhouse iterations.)
You check in at the front desk, pay an all-day fee, and get a pair of rubber clogs and a locker key with a microchip that records any other purchases. You walk down a set of stairs and receive a terrycloth robe, towels, and a sort of toga to wrap yourself in. After you change, you enter the bath area. To your left, a steam room and a hot tub, to your right a sauna and an ice-water plunge pool. As a break between your various hot and cold bath experiences, there’s a row of lounge chairs with reading lights. If you like, someone will bring you a beer, a beverage that tastes astonishingly good after a schvitz.
And if you’re hungry, there’s a Russian restaurant upstairs as well as a full bar stocked with (naturally) about 25 brands of vodka.
Are steams and saunas good for you?
The answer, like much in alternative medicine, is that it depends who you read. Let’s face it, in a sauna you’re cooked to about 190 degrees F, perhaps a few degrees lower in a steam room. Is this healthy? I saved a lot of time after discovering the research done by Chicago Reader columnist Cecil Adams, whose weekly Straight Dope has been “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 (it’s taking longer than we thought).”
For some people, yes. Some research says saunas and steam baths can help people with chronic heart failure, asthma, or chronic bronchitis. It makes a lot of sense—as your body heats, circulation changes. Your arteries open and your heart pumps more forcefully, sort of like what happens during an aerobics class. For someone with chronic heart failure, this exercise-like state is a positive because it strengthens the heart muscle.
In those with asthma or chronic bronchitis, the steam lubricates bronchial linings and thins mucus. Heating up in a steam bath or sauna also increases mobility and probably helps reduce pain in those with arthritis. Finally, the artificial fever created by steam or sauna supposedly activates your immune system and increases your resistance to cold and flu viruses.
More recent research from the University of Eastern Finland found that periodic saunas have positive effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and blood vessel health.
So how is a schvitz alternative medicine? Because of a steam bath’s ability to increase endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in your brain that work as natural painkillers. Also because when muscles are warmed they soften, becoming more amenable to massage. Fibromyalgia patients feel immensely better after steam, sauna, or a hot tub and pretty much feel worse in cold water or winter, when muscles tighten up.
Finally, for most people, heat combined with water equals immense relaxation, the very antithesis of stress. (Add a massage and you might hear angels sing.)
For others, not so much benefit
Saunas, steams, and hot tubs are a bad idea during pregnancy, and are also not recommended for certain heart conditions, like angina or arrhythmias. Saunas and steam baths have been widely promoted for weight loss and detoxification, but there’s really little evidence they work for either. You can sweat off a pound or two in a couple of hours, but gain it right back when you replenish your fluids. The “increased metabolism” that allegedly occurs during a sauna does boost your heart rate, but probably doesn’t burn enough calories to count as a weight-loss aid.
Despite all sorts of claims to the contrary, there’s very little evidence that steam and sauna remove toxins from your body. Yes, we do store toxins in our fat tissue and when we lose weight we reduce our body’s toxic load. But we can’t clear the toxins held in our fatty tissue by perspiring in a sauna or steam room. Chemical analysis of sweat pretty much shows that it’s simply sweat and not laden with the poisons we’d like to clear out. We actually excrete the toxins we’re exposed to through the liver, kidneys, and digestive tract.
The notion that toxins from fatty tissue can be sweated out is categorically denied by toxicology experts.
Still, misinformation abounds. In his book Detox Diets for Dummies, author Gerald Don Wootan, DO, states “multiple studies have shown that saunas are effective in removing solvents, organic chemicals, PCBs, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metal toxins from the human body.” But after spending far too much time trying to verify this, I couldn’t find a single one of these “multiple studies” in any medical journal.
Scientology’s guru L. Ron Hubbard did write extensively about detoxing via sauna, and his books seem to be the source of everyone else’s “multiple studies” (including, ironically, Dr Oz’s). Some time ago, I was approached by the Scientologists about being a medical advisor for Hubbard’s detoxification program, called the Purification Rundown or Purif. He believed the only way to deal with the long-term effects of drug abuse or previous exposure to toxins was literally to “heat” them out of fat cells, where he thought they were stored.
However, Hubbard’s prescription of five hours a day in a sauna, plus intensive exercise and high doses of niacin (the well-known niacin “flush” he believed would flush out toxins) struck me then, as it does now, as risky and pretty unscientific. So I turned down their offer, but not before I signed over my entire bank account and the title to my home.
Only kidding. Go have a schvitz.
David Edelberg, MD