Vanishing Catskills
 

A photographic survey of almost all abandoned and vacant bungalows and camps, houses, trailers and mobile homes, hotels and rooming houses (kuchaleins), casinos (recreation halls), resorts, synagogues and swimming pools within a 10 miles radius of Mountaindale, N.Y.

In December 2005, I moved from downtown NYC, 100 miles north to Mountaindale, NY. Disrupted in routine and fascinated by the new environment, I took time to explore the area. At the time, I was not aware that Mountaindale had been the epicenter of the Catskill region, the "Borscht Belt," in Sullivan County. I was fascinated and intrigued by the sheer number of abandoned buildings and vacant land. The variety of vernacular architecture was also unusual, presaging the modular and homogenous landscape of today. Surprisingly there is little comprehensive photo documentation of Sullivan County's heyday. I was inspired to photograph the remains of what were once thriving summer resorts and vacation businesses. The area began to deteriorate in the sixties. Today while some bungalow colonies and resorts manage to survive, Sullivan County has never recovered from its decline.

Earlier in the 1980's I worked on an art project called Homescrap, a multimedia project documenting the decline of the steel industry. This process was labeled "de-industrialization." Entire towns and neighborhoods collapsed from the loss of thousands of well paying jobs. The workers were virtually abandoned and the fate of the towns ignored as the economy wreaked havoc with local businesses, schools, property values and most importantly workers' lives and dreams.

I arrived in Sullivan County well after its decline. Unlike the steel community in which I grew up, I did not have any connection to the small businesses or workers who had comprised the resort business in Sullivan County. Most owners were small proprietors, entrepreneurs who, in true American fashion, built their business literally from the ground up. Some, more successful, more talented, more lucky or more skillfull were able to expand and build progressively larger and more expensive hotels and high end resorts. The Catskills boom began in the early 20th century and expanded rapidly, particularly after the great Jewish immigrant migration which ended in 1920. Post World War II was the last great era of the resort business in the Catskills. At that time no one could have foreseen the myriad changes in store for the region. The consumer forces unleashed by a growing economy were the very forces that ushered in the decline of the Catskills. The desire for a new improved lifestyle, assimilation into the American melting pot, and the aging of an older immigrant population were underlying factors coupled with a time when air travel became cheaper and newer chic resorts and communities were springing up elsewhere spelled the end of the Catskills by the 70's. Implicit in any improvement or change is the discarding of the old model. Joseph Schumpeter described the nature of capitalism as a process of creative destruction," a process in which the old ways of doing things are endogenously destroyed and replaced by new ways."

I was attracted to these ruins because of my own personal associations. My mother's experiences during WWII, and the destruction of the neighborhoods in South Chicago due to the demolition of the US Steel South Works gave me an on-going rapport with the nature and meaning of mortality. Here, as I traveled the local back roads, I would spot a rusty swing set or a rotting handball wall in the empty fields, concrete steps leading nowhere or hand-laid stone columns marking an entrance to a vanished hotel now overgrown with trees and brush. For all the structures I have photographed, an equal, if not greater amount, have been lost to vandalism, demolition, fire and nature. These architectural ruins have many thousands of personal stories within them, stories that are now memories at best, but mostly forgotten, and rarely documented.1 The ruins still standing are emblematic of the cycles of life and death, of dreams, visions, experiences, of individuals and nations.

Today Sullivan County is still struggling economically. The few remaining factories that provide jobs are closing due to the competitive forces of "globalization." The prison industry, the one sector where jobs are readily available, is now facing a declining crime rate. The Hasidic community still contributes to the survival of a fair number of remaining bungalow colonies, but their economic impact occurs mainly in the summer. There are also signs of a modest revival occurring as more individuals begin to migrate from New York City and Orange County in search of cheaper housing and second homes, although the rising cost of fuel may short circuit this development. In a nod to the past, some businessmen and politicians are betting on casino gambling and accompanying resorts to revitalize Sullivan County. Louis Cappelli and the Concord "Entertainment City" Project have begun to break ground. Individuals such as Alan Gerry, philanthropist and creator of Bethel Woods, and Ken & Barbara Schmitt, real estate developers and creators of the "Mountaindale Renewal," are attempting to rebuild the area and community from different perspectives. Unfortunately, the current mortgage and credit crisis portends a drastic halt to some of these trends and efforts. Time will tell if their projects will provide a tipping point for the revitalization and future of Sullivan County. 2

Raymon Elozua, Oct. 2008

1For a very personal memoir and history, Borscht Belt Bungalows, Memories of Catskill Summers, 1998, University of Temple Press by Irwin Richman, Professor of American Studies at Penn State University, is a wonderful introduction to the life and community in Sullivan County,

2For more information on the Catskills, visit the website of The Catskills Institute, An Organization to Promote Research and Education on the Significance of the Catskill Mountains for American Jewish Life, http://www.brown.edu/Research/Catskills_Institute, a very comprehensive website covering all aspects of Catskills history both historical and contemporary.