"Catskills Rebirth: Clash of the Old, New"
By Josh Getlin
L.A. Times: September 10, 2000
MONTICELLO, N.Y. -- As bulldozers get ready to demolish what's left of the old Borscht Belt and create a new mecca of swank hotels and casinos, a bitter truth is emerging: The world of wisecracking comedians, teeming bungalow colonies and summer romance immortalized in such films as "Dirty Dancing" is gone, the victim of changing vacation tastes and poor management.
By design, it is being replaced with a homogenized vacationland that will marginalize, if not erase, the Jewish culture preceding it. And the change is difficult for some to accept, given the Catskill Mountain's rich historical legacy.
Indeed, American Jews have given the region a distinct flavor for nearly 100 years, and many want to preserve it. But will developers planning to revive the area with gambling and mega-resorts keep this presence alive? The question hung heavy over a gathering here earlier this month on change and continuity in the Catskills.
"I'm glad you asked," said Marge Schneider, representing a company building a 1,500-room resort on the site of the bankrupt Concord Hotel, once the region's largest resort. "We plan to build retail shops here and we'd love to turn one of them into a little museum. You can send your memorabilia to this little museum, and we'll preserve it."
If plans to introduce Indian-run casinos here succeed ... and they seem closer to reality than ever ... millions of people will swarm into a green, pastoral region 90 miles north of Manhattan that could rival Atlantic City, N.J. And many of these tourists may not know or care that Milton Berle, Alan King, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Shecky Green, Danny Kaye and other shtickmeisters got their start in Catskill nightclubs.
"Go ahead and tell kids today that Eddie Fisher was a big star up here," said Tania Grossinger, a travel writer whose family once ran the legendary hotel of the same name. "They wouldn't know what you're talking about. Face it, that world is dead."
It's hard to disagree, given the region's shabby appearance. Scores of old hotels have been abandoned, and decaying cottages are overrun with weeds; rusting signs and faded billboards dot the roads like tombstones. Yet for some longtime visitors, Schneider's comments about memorabilia, however well-intentioned, seem to smack of condescension.
"This was a special area that had a profound impact, not just on Jews but on American culture," said Michael Fein, a former Borscht Belt singer who gathered earlier this month along with 300 others for the sixth annual Catskills Institute Conference at Kutsher's Country Club resort. "I can't believe this is how it ends ... in a little shop that sells trinkets."
Others say change is positive and should be celebrated. The new Concord, Schneider points out, will provide thousands of badly needed jobs in Sullivan County. It's inconceivable that such a beautiful area has languished, she adds, noting that her company, run by developer Louis R. Capelli, also plans to reopen Grossingers as a luxury hotel.
"I love talking about the past, but the future of this region is wrapped up in gambling," says Mark Kutsher, whose family-run hotel opened in 1907. He recently signed an agreement with Park Place Entertainment, America's largest gaming corporation, to open the Catskills' first casino in tandem with New York's St. Regis Mohawk Indian tribe.
For years, there was no real future for the Borscht Belt, just a glorious past and a sad, inexorable decline.
Jewish immigrants in New York City began transforming the area into a resort mecca around the turn of the century, when they took up farming and opened boarding houses for friends and family members who were eager to escape the city during hot summer months. Gradually, a tourist economy took hold, and by the 1950s there were more than 500 hotels, bungalow colonies and other settlements.
"You had a powerful sense of community up here," said Phil Brown, a history professor at Brown University and founder of the Catskills Institute. "Whole neighborhoods would come up here to the same hotel, year after year, and you would have dinner with the same people every summer. There was a sense of belonging to a place."
The bonds began loosening, however, after World War II. Cheap airline travel made it possible to explore the world, and air-conditioning made it easier to endure summers in the city.
Soon, signs of decay were everywhere: Hotels lost customers and physically fell apart. Summer crowds thinned, winter business dried up and famous resorts such as Grossingers, the Concord and the Granit closed. Although communities of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews remain here, the secular culture that gave the region its culture has vanished.
"It's a completely different situation today," said Kutsher, eagerly outlining plans for a casino and 2,000-room hotel on the banks of Lake Anawana, just two miles down the road from the site of the new Concord Hotel.
Since the 1970s, plans to build New York casinos have been routinely blocked by an array of local groups and Atlantic City interests, including developer Donald Trump, who did not want competition. In April, however, New York Gov. George Pataki said he would endorse an Indian-run casino in the Catskills, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved plans to build a gambling facility on the site of the Monticello Raceway. Under the plan, the Mohawks, who already run a New York casino near the Canadian border, would operate a site along with local developers.
Then, in a twist, Arthur Goldberg, chief executive officer for Park Place Entertainment, announced two weeks later that he had wooed the Mohawks away from their original business partners and would now work with them to develop a site at Kutsher's Country Club.
Although there are many competing interests to be sorted out, few disagree that the Catskills will undergo a major face lift.
"I don't know if this place will ever feel the same to me or my family," said Edith ("I won't give you my last name, but it rhymes with stone"), at the Catskills conference. "They've got big plans, and I think I'll be left with a lot of memories. Very sweet, but also very sad memories."
As changes loom, some people are scavenging the area, prospecting abandoned hotels like they were sunken ships. On a recent weekend, Alec and Marcia Glickman made their way past security into Grossingers.
"We found some old hotel ledgers and a room full of phones," Alec reported. "We love to visit these places."
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Catskills Institute preserves what it can. Brown and others lecture on the area's history; they are expanding their Web site and collecting memorabilia ... everything from postcards and menus to road signs and hotel furniture ... for storage at the Jewish Historical Society in New York.
"I'd like to open a real Catskills Museum up here," says Brown, describing a plan to buy an old hotel, spruce it up, install video programs and bring in lecturers to show the world what it felt like to summer in the old Borscht Belt.
"What I need to find is some kid who worked as a busboy or waiter in one of these hotels and then struck it rich in Hollywood or high-tech. Someone who remembers and could make this all financially possible," he adds. "That way, we could find a way to blend the old world with the new."