PARIS - Their vintage facades date back from a time when apartments didn’t have bathrooms. For many people, washing up meant a sink and cold water. The whole family went to these public baths, regularly or for special occasions.
But as time passed, these public baths were transformed into nightclubs, shops – or simply demolished.
Today with the economic crisis, in those French cities that still have them, public baths are becoming relevant again – and officials must adapt the facilities to new patrons and changing demographics.
Michel Benesteau is the head of the oldest active bathhouse in France. Built in 1855, it faces the bus terminal in the center of Nantes, western France. Since 2008, the number of visits to this small establishment has increased by 40%. In 2011, 12,500 baths or showers were taken here. The bathhouse has 14 cabins, spread across two floors. To respond to the influx of “bathers,” hours have been extended since mid-January. “We are now open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., six and a half days a week,” says Benesteau.
In Paris, the number of people that use the city’s 16 working public baths has nearly tripled since they became free in 2000. Today, the Parisian establishments are always full, with around 900,000 admissions annually.
“We are back in the 1950s,” says Patrick Leclère, the Paris city official in charge of public baths. “Our facilities are operating at full capacity, and couldn’t accomodate any more people.” Found mostly northeast of the city, in the lower-class neighborhoods, these facilities register between 15,000 and 90,000 admissions a year.
Jacques Richir, vice mayor of Lille in northern France, says his city’s two public baths provide an important public service. Despite their operating and personnel costs – which can run up to 1 million euros a year – he says they’re definitely here to stay. Situated in Wazemmes and Fives, two of Lille’s poorer neighborhoods, the bathhouses have also seen an increase in attendance.
Around 3,000 additional admissions were recorded in the Fives facility between 2011 and 2012. Since the closure of a bathhouse in the nearby town of Roubaix, people drive 15 kilometers to come to the Lille bathhouses. Here, showers cost 1.05 euros each, or 85 cents if you buy 10 tickets. About 25% of users are able to shower for free, thanks to coupons distributed by local charities.
New kinds of “bathers”
In this traditionally working-class city, the public bath population is evolving. As well as people who have no bathrooms at homes, and pensioners who come here for the friendly atmosphere, there are now also foreigners, particularly Roma families from Eastern Europe. Both of Lille’s facilities, with about 40 cabins each, are much too small to accomodate this growing public.
The city is thinking about an overhaul of its public baths. “Our facilities are too old, but instead of refurbishing them, we are thinking of moving them closer to other structures, like pools or gymnasiums, which would allow us to save money on operating costs and hot water.”
In the central city of Lyon, there are also two bathhouses still in use, both built in 1930. There too, the number of admissions has increased because of the crisis, but also because of world affairs. “Recently, there have been more Albanian and Bulgarian refugees,” says Catherine Saunier, from the social care department of the city of Lyon.
There are also the impoverished regulars, who have no other choice but to wash in these public facilities, and the occasional construction workers, prostitutes, and students. “Our users are more diverse today than before,” says Saunier. “In the 1980s, our establishments were strictly for the homeless.”
In Paris, the arrival of “bathers” from different nationalities has raised awareness about the need for a structural change. This year the city is thinking about providing new services in the bathhouses: medical or administrative assistance, locker rooms, etc.
Lyon is also thinking about updating its two facilities, and developing new, smaller hygiene centers across the city. Nantes, meanwhile, is mulling the idea of regrouping certain services such as bathing and laundry.