Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Forge of History

I want to talk about the part of New York State I grew up in, which was a resort area in the southern part of the Catskill Mountains usually known as the Borsht Belt.

I'm sure that when Hillary Clinton was running for a seat as one of New York's senators that some called her a carpetbagger. People with longer memories or a historical perspective remember that she wasn't the first. Robert Kennedy also won a New York senate seat back in the 1960s, back in the days when helping the poor people of Appalachia was a big issue.

Sometime after he was elected, a big bill to aid Appalachia was being put together, with many states getting pieces of the pie. To the surprise of many, RFK spoke up, urging some of the money be allocated to some of the counties in New York State he represented. Appalachia, he pointed out, did not stop at the West Virginia -- Maryland border; there were blighted and neglected mountain regions running northward, even north of the New Jersey -- New York border.

Now, some might have thought RFK was stretching a point to buy votes. Poverty on the level of West Virginia? Almost within sight of the Hudson River? But it was a good call; RFK's staffers had done their homework. Some of the counties surprisingly close to the New York suburbs are poor, poor, poor even today. They may be relatively poorer today than they used to be in 1950s, 1960s, and part of the 1970s because the once-booming resort industry, which had been attracting customers from New York's Jewish community and growing since the 1930s, suffered a major crash that has left the ruins of abandoned hotels, camps, and bungalow colonies scattered through parts of Ulster, Sullivan, and Orange Counties.

Go find a map website or a paper road atlas and look for a map of the area in Ulster County around a little no-stoplight hamlet called Kerhonkson, NY. I grew up there in a house up on a hill above a major highway, Route 209, and about a half a mile from the town. Route 209 runs from a town on the Hudson River called Kingston, meanders southwest across the New York--Pennsylvania state line at Port Jervis, and finally ends in central Pennsylvania. It's a snake of a highway, very scenic, but a brutal drive if one is used to driving wide and relatively flat Interstates.

In my pre-teen and early teen years I used to walk down the shoulder of 209 or in the concrete ditches alongside the two-lane concrete highway and carry home groceries from the small stores in town. The town had concrete sidewalks, about as wide as standard sidewalks are now. Would you believe me if I told you that there were times in the summer during "the season" when I was literally pushed off the sidewalk into the street by the crush of adult tourists in town from nearby hotels and bugalow colonies?

1 comment:

Dan Goodman said...

I believe the Borsht Belt took a hit earlier, when some people started going to Florida instead.

Note: Broome County is officially part of Appalachia. I don't know when this happened.

SF writers with ties to Ulster County: Barry Longyear's ancestors lived in Woodstock. And Janny Wurtz's family built the Delaware and Hudson Canal.