Unbuckling of the Borscht Belt Catskills: Cheap air fares, air conditioning and the decline of anti-Semitism have turned a thriving vacation area into a ghost of its former self.

Sun Journal

July 23, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FALLSBURG, N.Y. -- It is 1963, and a naive 17-year-old girl from New York City vacations with her family at a majestic resort with a private airfield. She meets a dance instructor. They fall in love.

The story is the plot line from the 1987 movie "Dirty Dancing," but the setting is real. Grossinger's, the resort where the movie was filmed, was real. The boomtown feel of this Catskills hamlet was real. And the neighboring Concord Hotel was real: all 2,800 rooms, two bathrooms to a suite, with a swimming pool the size of a lake. Once upon a time the Concord, here in tiny Fallsburg, billed itself as the largest resort hotel in the country.

Now Grossinger's is gone. The Concord -- bankrupt and barred by New York's legislature from bringing in gambling, its last, best hope for survival -- will likely join it in oblivion. Nearly 300 hotels and motels have closed in New York's Sullivan County since the resort business started to go south in the early 1960s.

"We're the biggest well-kept secret on the East Coast," Irving Cohen, maitre d' at the Concord, says with a bit of sarcasm. "It has become a struggle. There's a lot of competition today."

But the reasons for the demise of the Catskills as a vacation destination go deeper than that. Once the heart of the Borscht Belt, a summer destination for Jewish New Yorkers, Sullivan County is a victim of circumstances beyond its control, from the rise of air conditioning to the decline of anti-Semitism.

Al Rasnick, a local mechanic, says Fallsburg is a "ghost town," which is only part of the truth. This is a ghost resort town. All that is left of hotels that gave the Catskills fame and jobs are their foundations and their tennis courts -- the flat, tombstones for hotels that once flourished in the hills.

"If you weren't here during the 1950s and early '60s, during the Golden Age, you will never understand it," says John Conway, the county historian.

It took 200 years to create a wooded resort paradise here, and less than 10 years for it literally to go up in smoke.

Land records show that one "Jacob the Jew" owned a mountainous plot near here two centuries ago. But it wasn't until the early 1900s that middle-class Jewish families from Manhattan and Brooklyn discovered the benefits of Fallsburg, a Civil War leather tanning center of 13,500 people that spread over eight hamlets and 91 square miles.

By 1910 the Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper in New York, had labeled the Catskills "a continuation of Hester Street," the marketplace of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Well-heeled Jewish men sent their wives and children here for the entire summer season; they joined their families on weekends and in August, commuting to New York City on what locals called the Bull Train. Even in the hamlet of South Fallsburg, they had a wide choice of diversions: four delis, four soda fountains, a diner, and the Rivoli Theater, which never seemed to close.

Comedians such as Danny Kaye, Joan Rivers and Jerry Lewis made a name for themselves here, on the Borscht Circuit. Boxers trained at the hotels, with Rocky Marciano at Grossinger's and Sonny Liston at the Pines. Amateurs such as George Matiskos, the Borscht Belt Bruiser, came here to learn the trade.

'A fantastic place'

"It was a fantastic place," says Monroe Levine, whose family has run a lumber business here for four generations. "It was the capital of the vacation world."

The year-round locals reaped the benefits. All those tax dollars helped turn Fallsburg High School into an academic powerhouse. Jobs in the hotels, or in construction projects such as the Grahamsville dam or Monticello Raceway, were easy to come by.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the boom also attracted men of less noble ambitions. Prominent Italian and Jewish mobsters such as Waxey Gordon liked the shade provided by the pines and hemlock. They soon controlled the hotels' gambling

operations. And their hit men appreciated the Catskills' natural waterways: During the '30s and '40s, there were at least eight organized-crime murders. The bodies usually turned up in the lake near Loch Sheldrake, usually with a slot machine chained around the victim's neck.

By the 1950s, local prosecutors had added to the summer heat, and the mob became more interested in Las Vegas and Cuba. And the Catskills began to change.

Conway, the county historian, points to 1965 as the beginning of the decline. Bad news came from everywhere: cheap airfares to places like Las Vegas. The growing popularity of seaside vacations. The spread of air conditioning. And, most of all, the assimilation of the Jewish population, "which made a safe Borscht Belt vacation area less important and less appealing," Conway says.

Within 10 years, the resort industry had been reduced to ashes. Conway and other historians estimate that at least 100 hotels, motels and boarding houses -- nearly all of them failing financially -- have burned to the ground since World War II.

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