Catskills tries to reinvent itself as resort hub

Forty years ago, when Pat Walsh first started getting his hair trimmed at Bob Meo's barber shop, the town would teem with city folk seeking the cool mountain air.

Both men have seen a lot of change since then, and they're almost the last to remember those music-filled days. Mr. Walsh still runs the hardware store across Main Street, a shop his granddad took over in 1912. Mr. Meo's dad, too, had cut hair here when FDR was president and nearly a million New Yorkers thronged to the Catskills, filling bungalow colonies and ethnic resorts and staying all summer.

"The same people would come every year," says Meo. "They socialized, got to know the locals – we fed them three times a day, and they would bring in singers and dance on the front porches."

But that's in the past. As malls replaced the five-and-dime and airlines made Caribbean beaches just a few hours jaunt, a distinctive tradition of leisure that lasted more than half a century came to a close, causing many small towns that dot these woodland counties to fall into a decades-long slumber.

Today, however, whether it's ripping down a piece of Main Street's historic facade or throwing up the tangled colors of bubbling casino lights, many here are hoping to restore the sleeping region to a semblance of what it was so many years ago. Few believe the Catskills can attain its former status as a vacation mecca, but state legislators are betting that sprawling new casinos in this cash-starved area will bring development and jobs.

Local leaders hope visitors will be drawn to high-rise hotels and slot machines instead of porch swings and the trill of crickets. Even so, others worry that the accompanying crime and traffic will spoil the quaint charm of the region, and make it hard for even Rip Van Winkle to sleep. Donald Trump, worried about the effects on his Atlantic City empire, is suing too.

Casinos replacing comedians

Yet as planning has already begun for the construction of three Native American-run resorts in the region (three more have also been approved for upstate, near Niagara and Buffalo), the renewed attention has uncovered some relics from a forgotten time, and the prospect of change has led some to consider the cultures that thrived here.

In the south, the Catskills became known as the "Borscht Belt," since hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the city would drive up for the summer to "shmeck the beimer" – Yiddish for "smell the trees." In the evenings, Red Buttons, Buddy Hacket, Jerry Lewis, and a host of others did their lounge acts at the summer resorts, while youth worked their way through school as busboys or waiters.

"It was a major transformation for people who were used to living in tenements in the city," says Phil Brown, a professor of sociology at Brown University who has studied the cultural impact of Catskill summers on Jewish life in America. "They came from a culture where vacations were pretty much not a part of Jewish life in the old country." The result, he says, enabled these immigrants to become more American while at the same time introducing the American public to immigrant Jewish culture.

Mr. Brown, who worked his way through college and graduate school by waiting tables and playing the piano at lounges, helped the Catskills Institute study the major impact of those decades on Jewish culture.

Near Meo's and Walsh's town to the north, Italian and Irish resorts catered to immigrants as well, but they didn't have the same kind of numbers, and they didn't form a distinct style of humor and cuisine, as resorts did in the Borscht Belt.

Yet the summer Catskill experience was indeed the catalyst for greater assimilation for a variety of New York ethnic groups. In the late '60s and '70s, the third generation of these immigrants felt less a need to associate exclusively with their groups, and intermarriage was much more common. "In the '50s, 90 percent of Jews married other Jews," says Brown, "but within a decade, that dropped to 50 percent.... The other thing is people didn't want more of the same: We've heard the same jokes, we ate the same food, our parents went here, our grandparents went here; we want to do something else."

Tourists came to 'smell the trees'

As a result, the bungalow colonies and resorts became like the gold-rush ghost towns in the West, and hundreds of ramshackle cottages and empty, cracked swimming pools still sit out where people used to come to "smell the trees."

But today local leaders have planned for the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe to build and run a massive casino and hotel on 66 acres of Kutsher's Country Club, one of the few Borsht Belt resorts to survive. Another casino is planned for a parcel of land a few miles away.

In the town of Catskill, where the new casinos will have little economic impact, Walsh's hardware store and Meo's barber shop are two of just a few of the old businesses to survive. The Victorian homes and front facades of Main Street stores look as they did when guys sported flat-tops and bought their girls a nickel Coke.

But the town is planning to tear down some of the ramshackle historic buildings – which are part of the National Register of Historic Places – and build a $15-million county-office building and 500-space parking garage. A lawsuit to keep this from happening recently failed.

Walsh hopes the town will use its architecture as an asset, but he welcomes the new development. He is skeptical, though, whether tourism will return to the area, which is about an hour north of the proposed casinos. Vacations just aren't about relaxing in the woods anymore. "Back then, you went on vacation, and you were rested," he says. "Now, you go here and there, and you're even more tired when you get home." He chuckles. "I do the same thing myself now."

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