In the early 1900s, Detroit (founded in 1701 by French colonialist Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac) was a fairly prosperous city, much like any other industrial metropolis. Henry Ford provided $5 a day wages just up the street in Highland Park, and thousands of people flocked to Detroit for employment on the automobile assembly lines. With work readily available, Detroit became a magnet for European immigrants who settled in the central Detroit area of Hastings Street, south of the Oakland Baths.
As the city expanded outward from the Detroit River in a concentric circular pattern, the next population shift developed the Oakland Avenue corridor where Charles Meltzer built the bathhouse in 1930. Coincidentally, the Jewish population pattern in Detroit also moved in this northwesterly direction. The next migration would occupy the 12th Street neighborhood of the late 1930s, followed by the Dexter Avenue neighborhood of the 1940s, and finally move into the far northwest area of Detroit from the 1950s onward, pushing beyond the city limits by 1970, three years after the last civil insurrection in Detroit.
The 1930s neighborhood surrounding the bathhouse was very much a cosmopolitan environment. The habitants, mostly of European descent, with a significant number of eastern European Jews in its makeup, required the building of public bathhouses. There were no fewer than a dozen bathhouses in 1930s Detroit. These bathhouses were not only social meeting places but were hygienic necessities serving the cold water flats and apartments of the ethnic neighborhoods and encompassing all nationalities. But the Russian steam room tradition was decidedly a Jewish one, and the bathhouse on Oakland Avenue remains as its last and finest example.
As a backdrop to the construction of the Oakland Baths, the Black Monday stock market crash of 1929 took place the previous October. Prohibition was in full swing, and would last four more years. America was in the throes of the Great Depression. Apparently though, when Toots Johnson picked up a shovel and began digging out the basement in the employ of Charles Meltzer, the building was already standing! The second floor of the existing building at 8295 Oakland Avenue, with its 22 foot high ceiling was a dance hall prior to 1930. Within this structure, a 90 by 100 foot basement was excavated for the purposes of a steam room, mikvah (female ritual bath), and swimming pool. The main, street level floor would house the dining and changing area of the bathhouse. And the second floor was converted into a maze of sleeping rooms with a large central open area--basically, turned into a boarding house!
The above photo shows the front door to the bathhouse which always seemed to be ajar. Right behind the unlocked street door is a short flight of stairs that took you up to a second door that was locked. To announce your presence and gain entrance, a button was pushed to ring a loud droning school bell. You were then examined through a one-way mirrored window and buzzed in as the door unlocked. On the other side of that door, you entered an entirely different realm from anything you would normally encounter.
The above photo also shows Toots' office, the window to the right of the front door, and Harry's office, the window to the left. Whenever there was a commotion out on the street, Toots would appear at his office window. Toots knew all the local troublemakers, which was the first step in preventing a problem from getting out of hand down on the corner. Of course, he also knew all the policemen on patrol.
One evening as we were sitting around a table, Dick Brown decided that he needed to go out to his car for something or other. He stood up, tied a knot in his bathrobe and proceeded to walk out the front door of the bathhouse. We were all impressed that Dick would saunter onto the street at night dressed in nothing but his bathrobe. A few minutes later we heard Toots at the window laughing. Dick never made it to his car, the cops got to him first! We all joined Toots at the window in time to see Dick spread eagle against a cop car with his package hanging out for all the world to see. Toots yelled down to the police that Dick was harmless so they let him go, after cracking him upside the head with a billy-club for good measure.
By the 1970s, Oakland Avenue had become an extension of the typical urban ghetto. Local European shops like Slomovitz Cut Rate had been abandoned or boarded up, but other longtime retailers remained and thrived. We frequented Charlie the Pencilman, who sold incense and dream books; Gastman's, for beer and cigarettes; Red's Jazz Shine Parlor (Toots did a lot of things but one thing he didn't do was shine shoes); and the world famous Phelps Lounge, just up the street, home to the Motown Review (sort of), and Rhythm and Blues. When the sun went down, some of us got a little concerned about the street, but not Dick Brown or Jeffrey--they knew the lingo, besides, what could you hope to get from a guy in a bathrobe or another carrying a plaitza broom?
In the early 1970s, me, Dick, Jeffrey, Ricky and Neil were your typical feckless college kids studying liberal arts as a means to avoid the Vietnam draft. We all worked a few hours a day doing nothing in particular, went to college down the street at Wayne State University, and always found a way to arrive at Oakland by late afternoon. This activity, or something similar, took place every day for about five years. Oakland was the best part of our day. In case you are wondering, we all had very little money, but we made the best of it. After all, we were at Oakland specifically for the heat, the steam room, and at that we were experts. Do anything long enough and you get good at it. As it turned out though, the camaraderie was a big part of the attraction as it must have also been for our fathers in their day.
One day, Jeffrey and I took a bus down to the shvitz. As we boarded the bus, the driver took one look at long-haired Jeffrey who was carrying a plaitza broom and asked, "What is that? Marijuana?" Jeffrey, a-matter-of-factly replied, "Yah."
I suppose we could have tried to explain to the bus driver exactly what we were up to, but the Oakland Bath House always seemed to be rather indescribable to the uninitiated. Some of our friends really saw no useful purpose in hanging around a steam room getting or giving plaitzas more often than once per week or month, or even at all. The bathhouse was our own little private club in which we had risen to the top by self-decree, i.e., the big takeover. We would proselytize in the name of the bathhouse, but there were rarely any takers. This was probably one of those acquired tastes. It was just a crowd of 50 to 100 regulars, among which we were more regular than most.