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On the Scent of Cum, Steam, and Gentrification

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October 14, 2014


So, the story about Man's Country, which I was proud to call MY neighbourhood bathhouse, is that it is closing or that some part of it is to become a retail space.  The bath-parts (and, yes, bathing is a euphemism for sex) will still, apparently, continue.  I don't know the full story, so I'll wait for more details, and will update this as I get them.1


But I have, oddly perhaps for a woman who would never be admitted into a male bathhouse, all kinds of nostalgia for the place. I remember that summer in 1997, when I had just looked at the apartment that would become my—and then my beloved cat Toby's—home, and I recall wandering around in search of the bathhouse I'd heard of.  I could always tell who was straight and who wasn’t, based on their professed lack of knowledge or expertise about Man’s Country’s exact location.  Gay men would happily tell me where it was, but even their appraisals of the place revealed a lot about how they saw themselves on the social ladder.  Some were apt to sniff in disdain, while others smiled.  There was, I gathered, a distinct working-class touch to Man’s Country while Steamworks was the place where everyone else went; there were rumours of an even more discreet bathhouse, Man’s World, but the building which housed that was torn down long ago.  

I liked everything, well, everything I could see, about Man’s Country, including its white tiled exterior and the fact that it never even displayed its name.  It was and is owned by Chuck Renslow, also famous as the founder of International Mr. Leather, whose personal and political history encompasses decades of queer history.  No, really, I’ve done lots of research in queer archives, and it’s hard to not keep coming across his name in articles from the past sixty-odd years.


On occasion, I’d actually see Renslow himself, who drives a car with a vanity license plate, TopMan, and by "drives," I mean that he somewhat haphazardly directs its steel frame down the street.  


I digress.  At some point, Man’s Country put up rainbow lights on its exterior, which caused some harrumphing on my part, as someone who loathes the rainbowfication of queerness.  I felt a small pang of betrayal, as if somehow a secret amongst friends had just been blurted out.  This was, of course, silly on my part, and not just because, really, what stakes did I have in a place that would not legally let me in, but also because, really, a bathhouse couldn’t have survived from 1973 if it had been that much of a secret.  

But Man’s Country and the presence of Renslow, the Chuck Renslow, about whom I gathered scores of tales over the years, and the quiet stillness of that lovely white building made me feel like I belonged in the queer life I had come in search of when I moved to Chicago all those years ago, knowing only three people and with my life’s belongings clattering about in a gigantic U-Haul (they didn’t have the size I wanted, so they just went a size bigger). I drove it myself, accompanied by two Indiana friends who cheered me on, seated up front with me, and who helped me move everything into my new place.  


Over the years, my corner of Uptown, long-derided as unworthy of attention from real estate agents because there were too many car repair places and bodegas, slowly metamorphosed into a different place altogether.  Sometime around the early 2000s, someone dared to put up a sign in the alley between the cemetery next door, St. Boniface, and our building, forbidding anyone to park there.  I marched down, irate, the morning after I saw the sign, with tools in hand to take it down — and I didn’t even drive in the city — because who the fuck was telling us what to do?  I was surprised but pleased to see that someone else, in a fit of neighbourhood vigilantism, had already torn it off.  

But in 2004, at the height of the development boom, entire buildings on all sides were razed, taking their histories with them.  And that year, the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, of the much tonier neighbourhood to the north of us, planted its flag right outside our building, the first sign that we were doomed to the colonisation of gentrification.


I couldn’t take down a city flag (and a metal one at that) without severe consequences, so I had to be content with glaring at it every day.  This past summer, Andersonville hosted one of its summer fairs right outside the building.  My corner of Uptown is officially gone.


Gays, of the upper-middle-class and very-wealthy sort, the kind with lots of disposable income and, these days, tiny packs of adopted kids, are fond of gentrifying, as I’ve written here.  They are the first to demand that “seedier” establishments be pushed out of the neighbourhood, and hate the idea of being associated with anything as unseemly as sex.  When someone tried to open a coffee shop on the same block as Man’s Country, the entire neighbourhood, including several gays, was up in arms, convinced that it was all some sort of secret plot on Renslow’s part to, I don’t know, perhaps colonise the world, one bathhouse at a time.


The coffee shop is long gone, and Man’s Country has remained, but for how much longer?  I’m not needlessly nostalgic about a place I’ve never been inside, but I will always recall with fondness those warm summer days and cold winter nights when I’d walk by the front of the bathhouse and gently inhale the cum-scented steam puffing out of invisible vents.  I felt comforted by the smell, which told me I was nearing my abode.  Every neighbourhood needs its bathhouse, and there was nothing like jizz in the air to make me feel at home.  


1UPDATE: Matt Simonette reports for the Windy City Times that the space is simply being renovated to make room for a leather emporium. The report which started the rumours has since been taken down from the Uptown Update website. 


Many thanks to everyone who gave me input on a vital phrase used here, and to N., who passed on this lovely story, about cum-scented trees.


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