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By Jonathan Haeber
I had first read about the Catskills in an Art Spiegelman graphic novel. It was – perhaps satirically – depicted as a place of rest for the father in the story of Maus. The significance of the Catskills is not to be overlooked. Its history, its culture, and what it represents to our changing attitudes about the world, and our relationship with place — all of it could be made into a novel.
In fact, more than one novel has made its central subject the Castkill Mountains. It was the Borscht Belt. It was where Jewish Northeasterners sojourned. It was even where the Hudson School of Art began, and where Thomas Cole found his inspiration. What was its draw? What made it appealing to the rising class of Jewish immigrants who had finally achieved success in the shores of the Eastern Seaboard?
Today, such escapes can’t exist. They are no longer relevant, nor are they economically sustainable. When a JetBlue flight to Las Vegas costs about the same as a drive to the Mecca of early 20th-century Jewish leisure, one can easily assume that one or the other will fall by the way-side. Chances are, it’s the one that is closer to home that becomes disposable.
By the mid-90s, the vast majority of the 1100 Borscht Belt hotels had become history. Jerry Seinfeld, who was once a regular in the comedy clubs of the area’s resorts, had moved on to network TV. The areas of Sullivan County that were once the centerpiece of Jewish-American leisure could not compete with Florida, Hawaii, The Caribbean, or California.
It was at Grossinger’s Hotel that the very representation of this tragic loss became all-the-more-apparent. Today, the only thing being maintained on resort that dates back to the 19th century are the greens of the golf course. The sprawling complex of 35 buildings, 1200 acres, and once host to 150,000 guests a year, has become an eyesore of the past after closing in 1986.
There is no longer an active hotel; no outdoor olympic-size swimming facility; no lounge that hosts the high-dollar comedians of their day. There is only a 1/4-full green moss-ridden pool, surrounded by invasive indoor ferns. The burgundy and white tiles are merely a vestige. Fern and freezing-and-melting water become the centerpiece of a once-grand swimming facility. Only the lounge chairs remain as they were 20 years ago, when Grossinger’s had closed its doors once and for forever.
Reconstructing the Catskills
By Jonathan Haeber
Author & Photographer of this article
Paperback, 8″ x 7.5″, 60 pages, color photos
$20.00 — ISBN 978-0-9772742-8-4
A poignant look at the most famous resort in the Catskills. A full narrative of the history of Grossinger’s as told through 26 vivid, color images and 8 short chapters. Learn about the importance and significance of this once-bustling, but now abandoned, Catskills institution. Learn More >>
I have always held a high reverence for the Catskills. Few people I know had heard of the place. Perhaps it was the single frame that Spiegelman sketched of the place that attracted my imagination. There was something in the fact that it was a destination of escapism, and it was also a place – fantastical as it had become – that was the very antithesis of the horrors and the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
Drawing from old postcards, and trying to reconstruct in my mind the joy and the memories of these Catskills is a poor substitute to actually being in the place at its ap0gee. My journey to these mountains was limited to a few hours – for my jet flight back to the West was leaving the following morning. But the few hours I was there bended my mind and fractured my own notion of any sort of dimension.
Deep under the boiler house of Grossinger’s, for example, one of the largest of the Borscht Belt resorts, I discovered an intricate system of man-made tunnels that snaked and kitty-cornered under the grand dining room of the hotel. It seemed to be a massive, underground refrigerator or cold-storage area, but it literally occupied a football field’s worth of underground space. Walls collapsed into each other. Ceilings succumbed to the enormous weight of the hotel above me. In certain places, the floors above me had turned into empty holes where one could stare high into the empty spaces of the higher floors after emerging from the dark recesses of the cavernous cold storage room underground.
Walking up to the remains of the skating rank, I encountered a left-behind pair of ice skates, children’s mittens, and a cap – all of which looked to be at least 25 years old. And in the grand wood-paneled lobby, I saw the opulence reduced to a decaying mess of soggy drywall and mossy cement.
Grossinger’s was certainly a headliner among the Catskills hotels, but the Tamarack Lodge came in as an interesting mid-tier alternative.
Experiencing Grossinger’s Hotel After its Decline
There is nothing that will ever match my experience at Grossinger’s. I’m sure that I will never again see anything quite like it. Ironically, these resorts declined as a result – in part because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Before the landmark declaration, many Jews were either implicitly or explicitly not allowed in upscale resorts outside of the Catskills. By the time this occurred, rail service began cutting service to the area, and the jet era was about to begin. A younger generation of Jews had chosen other destinations for vacationing, and the old generation found themselves largely retiring to Florida.
And, as a final farewell, just this last spring one of the greatest hotels of the regions was demolished. The Concord was the largest hotel in the Borscht Belt region, and had closed after serving “sumptuous kosher dining” in its 3,000-seat dining room for five decades.Today, many hotels are slated to become Indian gaming casinos – ironically serving another culture just as they once had for half a century.
The Catskills may no longer attract sweeping artistic movements; these mountains my no longer be the sojourn of a post-WWII community battered by the horrrors of bigotry. Downtown, in Liberty, or East Falbrook, Kiamesha, or Bethel – you won’t see the glowing marquee of a matinee or the bright lights of kosher restaurants. But underneath the branches of pine and ash trees, you might just be walking on the old remains of a skating rink or olympic swimming pool. If you do, just imagine what it was like years ago, when this place was a seasonal escape from the crowded hustle of New York City.