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The Ruins of the Borscht Belt

A ghostly chaise at Grossinger’s, rubble at the Concord, and other photos of once-great Catskills resorts

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Indoor Pool 1, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort and Hotel, Grossinger, N.Y., 2012. (Marisa Scheinfeld)

I grew up in “the mountains” or, as others called it, “the country”—as if no other mountain or country existed. In fact, it was Sullivan County, N.Y., about 90 miles northwest of New York City and an area of the Catskills centered on the town of Monticello that from the 1920s through the 1970s represented a retreat for millions of city-dwellers, predominantly Jewish American. The locale was first developed in the late 1800s with tanneries, lumberyards, and farms that eventually became boarding houses and hotels. In large part this was a result of the emergence of sanitariums for fresh-air treatment of tuberculosis at the turn of the century. From these foundations, a tourist region was born that, by virtue of its proximity to New York, and its vast recreational opportunities—skiing, ice-skating, swimming in its lakes and countless pools—became the prime destination for hundreds of thousands of newly middle-class Jewish vacationers. The region peaked in the 1950s and ’60s and came to be known as the Borscht Belt.

For Leftover Borscht, my photographic project on the ruins of the old hotels, I returned from studying and working in California to my mountainous childhood home to document the state of a few of the 538 hotels that once existed here: Kutsher’s, Grossinger’s, the Tamarack Lodge, the Pines, and other iconic destinations from a time when discriminatory policies made it difficult for Jews to travel freely across America. The resorts once functioned year-round and offered visitors leisure, entertainment, and some form of the American Dream. Influenced by photographer Andrew Moore’s work on Detroit; Robert Polidori, who photographed Chernobyl and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and photographer Mark Klett’s rephotographic work on the American West, I decided to follow a trusted mentor’s advice and shoot what I know.

To that end, I began making repeated visits to the region over the course of two years to document what the Borscht Belt had left behind. Since its heyday—when stand-up acts like Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, Lou Goldstein, and Woody Allen performed—the area has undergone severe decline. Changes in entertainment, advances in civil rights, the growth of the suburbs, and the onset of the jet age all changed a powerful local industry into an archipelago of ruin, as much a victim of financial mismanagement and lack of foresight as other relics of bygone eras, like the drive-in movie theater and the VHS.

Getting access to each site was different, but it was always trespassing. I was helped by friends, local lawyers, police, and town commissioners who gave me a sort of silent permission to go to the hotels once they realized that I wasn’t vandalizing or stealing—like those arrested weekly here—but doing a serious project. Often there was little information available about the status of the properties, some of which had been idle and untouched for more than 20 years, others of which had been converted into rehab centers, jails, or meditation retreats. Many current landowners have let the properties fall into disarray, an issue with local police who end up chasing out squatters, scrappers, and vandals. Many of the hotels have burned, leaving just charred remains around empty pools, often the last structural feature to disappear.

As a child, I visited many of the sites in these photographs regularly with my family; swimming and eventually working as a lifeguard in the oversized pools of the Concord or playing bingo at the Pines Hotel. Histories, memories, and nostalgia still linger in the worn foundations, carpets-turned-to-grass, and empty lounge chairs. Their abandonment and wreckage lie encircled by nature, which is slowly reclaiming the space. Often I could not tell where the man-made ended and nature began. While the project originated with my interest in regional history and engages personal memories, it also reveals the growth, flowering, and exhaustion of things and their subsequent regeneration. As each image began to reveal its layers, the project became reminiscent of the life cycle itself: old structures evolving into something new, odd, and often intriguing.

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I invite you to also check out my photos from a number of Borscht Belt resorts including the Pines, Grossinger’s, the Tamarack, and Nevele: http://www.allabandoned.com/all/

Oh. So your one of those people who try to take advantage of someone else’s moment by pushing your own work.  Your not tacky, no not at all your cool. Real cool. 

beat eat chump. stop trying to steal someone elses thunder!!!

Great photos and though I’m only 33, brings back a lot of memories of my childhood, when my grandparents rented a house in Kerhonkson in the summers. My father’s cousin owned the Brookside Motel in Kerhonkson and we used to swim there. We also used to swim at The Granite Hotel (now the Hudson Valley Resort, I think). I had my bat mitzvah party at The Granite! Here is a website that was made about The Brookside: http://thebrooksidehotel.com/

Bridna says:

Your photos bring back lot of old memories. They are quite stunning and impactful in their simultaneous beauty, hope, and despair. Are prints available for purchase?

Nice photos. keep up th good work

What happened to the Homowack and the Nevele?

You are a very talented writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed the article and photos.

Scheinfeld says:

Thank you for your comments! Prints are available for purchase in a variety of sizes by contacting me through my website at http://www.marisascheinfeld.com. A book of the entire series will hopefully be out in the coming year. 

Scheinfeld says:

Thank you! 

Scheinfeld says:

As far as I am aware, the Homowack was purchased by a Hasidic group and now functions as a camp – there is an article online about a fire there in 2009 and the Nevele in talks for development…

I am 57 and certainly have memories of The Catskills in the 1960s and early 1970s.  It truly was a great era.  More than simply nostalgia, it’s an important part of the Jewish-American experience in both terms of culture and history.

Around 1968 or so, I was in a brochure for The Echo Hotel in Ellenville. I was standing by my tobaggan with a group of about five other kids.  I cannot find that brochure on any online source.  So if anybody had it, I’d love to see it posted. 

I was a bellhop at Grossinger’s during the late 1970′s when I was in college and used to sit on those green stools in the coffee shop when I would work the night shift.

I linked to your article at The Political Commentator here: http://bit.ly/NDCOTy

And you are, Who?

Christopher Reiger says:

Handsome pictures, Ms. Scheinfeld.  I’m pleased that Tablet offered you a platform to highlight the project.

I was introduced to Grossinger’s contemporary incarnation through the work of photographer Katherine Westerhout (link below), who also produces astonishingly lovely pictures of derelict buildings and structures.  Your particularist focus, however, appeals to me, and “Pile” and “Indoor Pool 2″ are especially beautiful pictures!

http://sfelectricworks.com/artists/westerhout/index.html

AmyBright says:

An interesting article and poignant photos. But to make it well-rounded why not have photos of what has become of the other parts of the area? Many New Yorkers (and New Jersey-ers) have second homes there now — including my family. And many of the towns are making a comeback (with fits and spurts of course).  It’s an era long-gone but the area has evolved into a low-key, artsy second home haven for people who don’t want the crowds (and cost) of the Hamptons.

AmyBright says:

An interesting article and poignant photos. But to make it well-rounded why not have photos of what has become of the other parts of the area? Many New Yorkers (and New Jersey-ers) have second homes there now — including my family. And many of the towns are making a comeback (with fits and spurts of course).  It’s an era long-gone but the area has evolved into a low-key, artsy second home haven for people who don’t want the crowds (and cost) of the Hamptons.

Heartbreakingly beautiful.  I spent and still spend every summer of my life, except for two, in the area.  There is still much beauty and vibrancy of a sort.  But, of course, not the same as it was.  That was a glorious era. 

ge co says:

I don’t get it! Photographs depicting the good old days when these places were packed, that I understand. But snapshots of the wreckage, debris and current state of disrepair?? Nothing ‘artful’ in either the subject material or the photos themselves. And I’m someone who has more than a passing association with photography.

those of us with fond memories of “the country” look forward to your book, good luck with all you do

seems to me you are passed associating with class as well!

Unspeakably depressing and affecting…sort of makes me feel like a rubber-necker causing traffic.  Very good work.

savtaro says:

As a former Parksville summer girl (and neither a girl nor a Parksvillian these days) I long (and I mean I really really long!) for the halcyon summers of old.  The very air breathed romance, delicious food, sports, card games, starlit nights and no sign of a television or a computer.  The trek to get there was always torturous:  lots of packing and lots and lots of frustratingly slow traffic, but when we arrived it was just heavenly.   All of us who grew up in those days in the 50′s and 60′s (and the 40′s too) are hopelessly enchanted with the memories of those times.  But, I have a question for the readers:  why can’t any similar place make it today?  I know we’re all jet setters and that’s why we hear the Catskills ultimately met their demise.  But I don’t buy it.  A trip to Asia or Europe is a major deal and we are all doing it but surely there are enough of us who would like to get away to the country, any season of the year, for a few days of the best family vacation ever. Isn’t there someone out there who has the guts of my long gone grandparents to invest in a place, work super hard, and provide guests with the best times of their lives.  Someone please!!!

cinnamona says:

is this one of those photographic metaphors of the meaning of life? it’s usually of used car lots, especially at sunset. you know what i mean. interlaced with the almost cliched trope called fighting down memory lane. spare me.

Brings tears to my eyes considering I was a bus boy and then a waiter at the Brickmans, Homowack and Concord.  Those were the days.  Wow…can we bring those fun times back ??

sedaliasteve says:

Great! – but Depressing! I ate at that coffee shop Grossinger’s and the dining room at the Pines. I went there with my family many times in the late ’50′s into the 60′s. The comedians would tell the dirty punchlines in Yiddish. It was a vibrant culture in its day.

Any photos of The President Hotel of Swan Lake? My mom carried me on horseback and I was in a rowboat while my family fished on the lake there in the early 1950′s. I saw its ruins in 1971, the summer I worked as a bus-boy at The Stevensville Hotel. I’m sure that one is also gone. 

 Who I am is irrelevant to the matter and we are not talking about my work.  My point is simple. If you were having a party Nina, how would you like it if someone else came in to your party and told everyone to come to their party? It would not be a good feeling, would it.  Just a thought.  Thanks

Kotagyrl says:

Sad. Just sad. How did this happen? The properties were just abandoned? The owners just walked
away? Who owns these places now? The towns?

Oudtshoorn says:

How nasty you sound, Mr Helfman.

Wonderful! These photographs could illustrate Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us , this amazing book which explores the ways our planet would respond as soon as humans stop  interfering….

Yisrael Medad says:

I wonder if Unity House was included.  That’s where we spent holidays in the early 1950s.

 http://myrightword.blogspot.co.il/2008/07/unity-house-bit-of-personal-history.html

arthur53 says:

Many of us who also share great childhood memories are back up here. Someone should do a photo series on all the new things happening up here: Bethel Woods for the Arts, on the site of the Woodstock Festival (where Ringo Starr played last night, and the Beach Boys tonight); downtown Kauneonga Lake with five great restaurants; the Monticello Motor Club, and, quite simply, the same old beauty that first made the Catskills a great destination. It’s not the same, but, it’s still great up here. Also, check out http://www.chapinestate.com for great homes.

arthur53 says:

 See my post just above. There’s lots happening up here, although a different format then the old hotels and bungalow colonies. But, you certainly pose an interesting question.

arthur53 says:

For those of you who would like to find additional great material about the Catskills and the Borscht Belt, check out the Catskills Institute, created by Professor Phil Brown, at Brown University:

http://catskills.brown.edu/

My family stayed in the Concord in the 1970′s.  It’s sad to see this part of American Jewish crumble, a form of apocalypse to a certain set of cultural expectations and practices among east coast Jews.  These photographs are shocking as well as stirring, a vision of memory in the process of degradation, a life slagging piece by piece into dust.  

Bill_Pasternak says:

A trip back in time.  This is my 70th year on this tiny oasis in the cosmos we call earth, and I can vividky remember back to my pre-teen years when our family would make that annual pilgramage to the La Salle Hotel in Hurleyville.  I still have a few photos take of myself, my brother and late mother that my late father took with his 1928 era Kodak folding camera.  A few are on my Facebook page as a reminder of my past and my heritage.  I have for years wanted to make the same trek you did — camera in hand — to try and capture anything of the past.  Life out here in “The City of Angels” always kept me from achieving that dream.  The closest Ive ever come is to walk my old neighborhood in Bensonhurst Brooklyn with my then trusty Leica and record the place I came from.  I sincerely thank you for immortalizing for posterity the places and times of those days when we “went to the country” for those special moments of the family together.  

 I agree. It would put everything into context. However, there is no way to bottle up those “Dirty Dancing” memories….whether we were there as children with our parents, singles mingling, or visiting with our own families with our own children. 

My parents, now in their late 80′s, worked in those hotels and slept in converted chicken coops. They liked it well enough that they eventually moved to”the country” – rural northwest New Jersey, in 1950, bringing up a Jewish family in a distinctly non-Jewish community.  

We visited those communities, including rooming houses in Mountaindale, where our Brooklyn cousins and aunt and uncle summered. As adults we stayed at Brown’s, Nevele and others with our young daughter, who started her birthday week holding our fingers and literally ran down the long corridors by the end of our stay.

We still uncover souvenirs of those times…faded trophies, junk jewelry, funny hats, those little photos you have to hold up to your eye to view.

Ahhh….the memories! Keep the photos and stories coming!

Malti Weiler says:

Actually, Michael, we don’t know all the details do we?  What if Miss Sheinfeld is the copy cat…  Maybe she has connections to get her story published whereas the commenter has made attempts but didn’t have the inside person to get their material out to the world.

What if all the invites you sent out for your party were intercepted, and replaced, so that the party-goers were redirected to another home?   How would that feel?  Just a thought. Thanks.

Malti Weiler says:

I think you have produced a very well thought out and laid out documentary.  You have dramatically portrayed the ruins as, well, ruins.  It’s a shame that after only a short time, historically, they were left to fall into shambles. 

It’s as if it were only meant for short-term monetary gain.  Many popular hot spots were continuously renewed, with a constant rising of new buildings to keep a certain spirit alive… Vegas, is a good example…. but, this place seemed to just lack an planning for the future.  Take the money and run.

Taking pictures of decrepit buildings that should be cleaned up and/or torn down is art?

Next thing you know, we’ll be seeing pictures of trash dumps as “art”.

Ridiculous, bubbeleh.

bobschwalbaum says:

I worked 2 summers in the Catskills in the early 50s as a waiter at a place called “Goldenbergs”
It was kosher.. but only in the dining room.. the kitchen was far from kosher.
As for fires.. when you heard the sirens go off.. the standing joke was.. “Oy! Business is bad”.. meaning that the straitened owners had set their hotels on fire to collect on the insurance.

I did not know about the decay; I’m morose! In 1971, I was the Waterfront Assistant Director at Camp Equinunk, in Honesdale, PA. We counselors would go up to Monticello on days off. I was the only gentile in the camp, but was treated like a prince. The kids voted me best athlete in camp; It would be another year before Mark Spitz. All the kids there knew the words to “Jesus Christ Superstar”, a Broadway smash at the time. LOL

My father’s side of the family has lived in Hurleyville from since before my dad was born. They owned the only store in town, which is now gone, of course, and only my uncle still lives there. Before my husband and I married, we stayed at Kutsher’s, and were dismayed to see how things have changed up in the country. In this day and age, when people want to get “out of town,” they have way more options than they did in the 50s and 60s…….transatlantic flights are almost cheap, and nobody spends an entire summer in a bungalow anymore.

But it doesn’t stop me from wishing for those days….the house my great-grandparents built, where my grandparents lived with them and my mom and aunt were raised, is abandoned and sitting empty in Woodbourne…..what I wouldn’t give to own it, rebuild the bungalows that once sat on the property, and have a place for my family to go in the summer……and remember how it was when my parents were young.

The pictures are heartwrenching, yet so hauntingly beautiful ……

BigGuy says:

http://catskills.brown.edu/
Phil Brown grew up in the Catskills and runs the Catskills Institute. His site will be a lot of fun for people who have enjoyed looking at those photos.

Dcoronata says:

A lot of these comments remind me of my own life history. I spend the first 20-odd summers of my life in the Catskills, in South Fallsburg, Thompsonville, and Kiamesha. And I remember all of these towns and many of these resorts vividly- the Raleigh, Shancks (sp?) Concord, Grossingers, Pines, etc… and their close cousins the bungalow “colonies” all along route 42 (starting from just east of Port Jervis all the way to the Ulster County line), Thompsonville road, Hurleyville, 209, 55, 52. Air conditioning killed the Catskills- that and cheap air travel and a generation that was more interested in sending their kids to camp rather than these little insular communities.

I spent several summers at Landsman’s in South Fallsburg in the early 60′s. It was a place where the women and children spent the summers and the men drove up the weekends. We lived in a bungalo, a simple structure with a small kitchen and bedrooms and a tiny sitting room and bathroom. Nobody locked their doors. There was day camp for the kids and mah jong for the Moms.There was the ‘casino’ where there was weekend entertainment and a diner type counter for food and drinks. Later on I was a counselor at the DeVille hotel; many of the DIrty Dancing scenes were familiar. The photos made me year for simpier times.

Lynne Marton says:

This is so sad!!!! Really! Why bash each other over who took which picture or whose are whatever???? The point is – a once really great area has literally been destroyed and left to ruin!!!! And I’m sure I am not the only one to find a place that I had once spent many wonderful summers enjoying in my teenage years, and later also as a Mom with my little kids, utterly devastated. It’s a horrific tribute – as much as you say it’s art – to a once beautiful, thriving community!!!!

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The Ruins of the Borscht Belt Hotels

Photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld
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