Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Forge of History (Continued)

(Sorry, Readers! I misunderstood this blog’s editing software, so you received the first half of the preliminary version of my second post. Here’s the second half.)

Well-to-do tourists had been coming to hotels in the mountains northwest of New York by rail since the late 1800s, but by the 1920s and 1930s recent immigrants started to come by bus and car. In an era before air conditioning, the air was fresher and cooler in summer compared to the blistering streets of New York. Some local Jewish farmers, many also recent immigrants, started to take in boarders.

The “milk farms” grew in popularity. Soon, the boarders began providing more income than the cows and the milk farms became hotels. Others built clusters of little cabins called “bungalows” that families could rent by the week or month. The husbands would send their wives and kids to the mountains in the summer and they would work all week and come up for weekends. Still other built camps where kids could be sent to spend part of the summer in the country.

Early on, there wasn’t much to do at a hotel or bungalow colony but relax or eat.
As one who worked as a waiter and busboy for years in the Catskills, I can assure you that huge meals were definitely included! Organized activities, expanded facilities, and entertainment came later. But soon, older vaudeville and nightclub stars came to entertain in the Catskills and young talent, like Jerry Lewis and others, blossomed there. The cultural heritage from the Catskills was not hotel architecture or fine dining (I can assure you of that, too!), but comedians and comedy. Soon the hills rang with a million jokes.

It was a great place and time for a teenager to grow up. The hotel dining room operations needed raw labor to keep their guests fed and the local kids needed money for cars or college. It sure beat working for one’s parents or on a farm! After dinner, the kids were on their own until breakfast. If you knew someone who could get you in, you could drive off to a bigger hotel and see shows with big name comedians or other entertainers. Or you could wander around the streets of the small mountain towns and try to meet girls up from the city with their families.

Two points I want to make clear. First, all this I write about took place in the southern part of the Catskill Mountains. Up north, in the real Catskills around Tannersville, where the mountains were taller and wilder, was ski resort country. I know almost nothing of what went on up there. The resorts that catered to an Eastern European Jewish customer base, like my family and my relatives, were in the Borsht Belt nearer New York. In the early days before the newer roads were built, the Borsht Belt hotels were a four-hour or five-hour drive from New York. Later, after the New York State Thruway (I-87) and the new Route 17 were built, the trip dropped to around two or three hours.

Second, I’m sure there were other ethnic resort enclaves around New York at that time – but I don’t know anything about them, either. I once heard that there were some Irish resorts east of us around Wallkill, NY, but I’m totally in the dark about them. Where did New York Italian families spend summer weekends in the 1950s and 1960s? Around Atlantic City? Maybe someone who reads this will know and comment about it.

But if you are old enough to remember much of the 20th Century, you know that change is the theme or the sub-theme of everybody’s life. The forge of history has pounded out many fantastic improvements but also delivered some nasty whacks. The last time I visited Kerhonkson, most of the stores had been torn down or had fallen down and trees were starting to grow up through the blacktop of the parking lot at the north end of town. It was like a scene out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or any one of dozens of post-disaster SF novels. Where had all the tens of thousands of tourists gone?

What killed the Catskills was not a disaster, but success. Many of the larger hotel owners made enough money to buy and open hotels in Florida. Their summer customers followed them there in the winters and eventually retired there when they grew older. Those hard-working husbands who used to send their families to the Catskills? They and their wives taught their children to work and study hard and they got good educations and build fine careers. Those grown-up kids, somewhat more sophisticated, affluent, and demanding then their parents, stopped coming to the Catskills when fares in shiny jet planes became cheap enough to fly them off to vacation spots in the Caribbean for little more then what it would cost to stay in the Catskills. And where would YOU rather vacation: St Croix or Kerhonkson, NY?

The children of the smaller hotel, camp, and bungalow colony owners got good educations, too. They had other careers in mind instead of taking over the family businesses. Lucky were the owners of these smaller attractions who sold out before the bottom fell out of the Borsht Belt resort market. The side roads around towns like Greenfield Park, Fallsburg, Loch Sheldrake, and Monticello are lined with the ruins of now-abandoned resorts that are vanishing into the bushes.

When I was a waiter and a busboy working in both big and small resorts around those towns, I assumed that other ethnic groups would move into the Catskills sooner or later. I expected the Catskills to turn Puerto Rican someday. Later, in my grad school days, I saw lots of ultra-Orthodox Jews moving into the area. But if any of the more recent immigrants to New York have filtered into the Catskills, I haven’t heard about. I live in a suburb of Philadelphia now and I don’t read the New York Times or the Middletown Daily Record these days. The green woods, the fresh air, and the mountain scenery is still there, but everybody has air conditioning now, not to mention digital recreational resources beyond anything the 1930s or 1940s could imagine. Maybe the attraction just doesn’t exist.

But I could be wrong! On warm summer nights the streets of Monticello could be seething with crowds of South Chinese, Salvadoran, or West African teenagers checking each other out and madly texting each other while their parents enjoy the new ethnic restaurants and comedy clubs. Yes, there have to be comedy clubs. After all, it’s the Catskills!