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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Marisa Scheinfeld's Photographs of Borscht-Belt Resorts

Business Insider magazine has a webpage introducing a series of recent photographs, done by Marisa Scheinfeld, illustrating the physical deterioration of the Borscht Belt hotels. A few old photographs, however, show scenes from the hotels' golden age.   

Here is an excerpt from the Business Insider introductory article:
The so-called "Borscht Belt" — also known as the Jewish Alps and Solomon Country — was transformed by the Jewish community into a resort haven of their own. 
Skiing, skating, swimming, and boating were all offered by the ritzy resorts. Little-known comedians including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Joan Rivers all got their start doing stand-up comedy here. The community even inspired the film Dirty Dancing
In short, the Borscht Belt was booming. 
But that all changed in the 1960s. Cheap air travel suddenly allowed a new generation to visit more exotic and warmer destinations. Grossinger's Resort, which once boasted 150,000 visitors annually and was known as the "Waldorf in the Catskills," abandoned its operations in 1986. 
New York-based photographer Marisa Scheinfeld grew up in this community, vacationing in the Borscht Belt with her family every summer. She set out to capture the crumbling glamour of the once well-known destinations in her new exhibit "The Ruins of the Borscht Belt." 
"While the project originated with my interest in the area's regional history and engages personal notions of memory, it also reveals the growth, flowering and exhaustion of things, and then their subsequent regeneration," Scheinfeld said in her artist statement. "The Borscht Belt was a haven for an entire cultural and social movement of people; its influences spread to mainstream American culture, entertainment and media."
Now, the swimming pools typically look like this:

 These and other photographs from this collection can be seen in larger size here.


Newsweek also has a webpage, written by Abigail Jones, about Scheinfeld's collection of photographs. Here are some excerpts.
Had photographer Marisa Scheinfeld, 33, been born a few decades earlier, she would have grown up in the heart of America’s quintessential vacationland rather than its modern-day ruins. When Scheinfeld was 6 years old, her family left New York City to move upstate, to a tiny slice of the Catskills called Kiamesha Lake. “It’s barely anything,” she says of the leafy hamlet, but from the 1920s through the 1960s, millions of Americans—including Scheinfeld’s father and grandparents—sought out the area’s nearly 600 hotels, 500 bungalow colonies and 1,000 rooming houses for a dose of relaxation, nature and indulgence. It was the American Dream meets Disney World meets a summer camp for adults. 
Dotted across Sullivan and Ulster counties, hotels like the Concord, Grossinger’s, the Pines and the Laurels boasted luxury at its most grandiose. The Concord had 40 tennis courts, three golf courses, 1,200 guest rooms, a dining room for 3,000 and its own gas station. Nearby, Grossinger’s was a rival behemoth, complete with the requisite outdoor activities and enormous interiors, plus a private post office and a landing strip. Wilt Chamberlain, who spent a summer working as a bellhop at Kutsher’s Country Club, played on its basketball team. His coach: Red Auerbach. Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson trained for fights at the Concord. Evenings were just as dazzling. Everyone from Jerry Lewis to Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Seinfeld performed their stand-up acts on hotel stages. Bungalow colonies offered a simpler side of the Catskills experience. ..... 
Today, almost all of these great Catskills resorts have been abandoned, transformed or demolished. The Concord, where Scheinfeld spent her summers working as a lifeguard and playing cards and bingo with her grandparents, closed in 1998. Soon after, it was bulldozed—all of it: the tennis courts and swimming pools and skating rinks and night clubs and thousands of hotel rooms. 
Some hotels and bungalow colonies became meditation retreats and rehabilitation centers. A handful are now home to Orthodox Jewish families from New York. There is even talk of casinos reinvigorating the area. 
Yet so many of these hotels and bungalows have become ruins. Left for dead, they have been reclaimed by nature, altered by time and neglect, their buildings and grounds morphing into eerie, postapocalyptic graveyards. 
The Catskills of Scheinfeld’s childhood—economically depressed, rundown—became her muse. In 2009, she left the East Coast to pursue her MFA at San Diego State University. Homesick, she spent her vacations in upstate New York; when a professor told her, “shoot what you know,” she started photographing the ruins of these once-great hotels. 
Her first museum exhibit, “Echos of the Borscht Belt: Contemporary Photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld,” takes us claustrophobically close to the skeletal remains of the Catskills’ golden age. The show, which officially opens September 10 at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City, is haunted by the detritus of what once was: the missing people, the abandoned activities, the desolate places that at one time buzzed with life. Hallways are bruised and broken, strewn with crumbling plaster and fallen insulation. Wires hang from ceilings, graffiti covers the walls, moss grows over floors and up stairs. In a guestroom at the Tamarack Lodge, a pale pink rotary phone sits on a bare mattress, the receiver off the hook. And yet Scheinfeld’s photography shows that these broken hotels are very much alive. 
The exhibit, which features 21 large-scale photos plus a few cases of Catskills ephemera (a Concord ski hat, Grossinger’s stationery, postcards and room keys), takes you through the hotels as guests would have experienced them. We start at the entrances, all of them overgrown with lush trees and sunburnt fields, and then move into the once-ornate lobbies, pools and nightclubs, which now look more like where squatters, addicts and hipsters throwing DIY warehouse raves might congregate. .... 
Scheinfeld worked with local police and politicians to get permission to walk on the various properties. Sometimes, she simply trespassed. Once on-site, she often carefully stepped across crumbling foundations, sunken floors and broken glass. In the winter, snow often fell indoors, creating a layer of ice on what was left of the floors. By springtime, puddles were everywhere. ....
Next year, Cornell University Press will publish a book of Scheinfeld’s photography, including 80 photos of hotel ruins; portraits of people who helped spark the Catskills heyday (including comedian Mal Z Lawrence and dancer Jackie Horner), and a collection of re-photographic works. The latter is especially compelling. Using vintage postcards as her guide, Scheinfeld hunted down the locations on the cards and took new photos from the very same perspectives and vantage points. One juxtaposition features the Laurel’s indoor pool at its peak, packed with a crowd of smiling, tanned guests and tall, rectangular windows. When Scheinfeld returned to the Laurel’s to photograph the pool, all she found was a hole in the ground in the shape of the pool, filled to the brim with snow. 
Despite spending the past five years photographing abandoned resorts, Scheinfeld says she never felt emotional about their decline, never once teared up—until last week, during her first visit to Kutsher’s Country Club. It outlasted all of the great Borscht Belt hotels, although today it is partly demolished, partly collapsing and “a total mess,” as Scheinfeld puts it. 
“It was very emotional for me. I didn’t realize how upset I’d get. I used to go with my grandma, who’s old and sick, and my grandfather, who passed away. I saw the pool table we used to play on, and the hallway we used to pass through that’s now falling apart…. I don’t want to go back there again,” Scheinfeld says. “After I left Kutsher’s, I cried.”
Jone's entire article, titled "Photographing the End of the Borscht Belt in the Catskills", can be read here.


The Daily Beast published another interesting article based on Scheinfeld's collection of photographs. The article, titled "The Ghost Hotels of the Catskills" and written by Brandon Presser, is published here. I thought the following passages were especially interesting.
Thousand-person theaters sprung up, and the casts of resident entertainers, which included the likes of Milton Berle (né Mendel Berlinger), Sid Caesar (né Isaac Ziser), and Alan King (né Irwin Kniberg), were largely credited with birthing American comedy as we know it today. 
These summer havens were the training grounds for future television and film stars, and, as [John] Conway [the official Sullivan County historian] explains, “It was the Saturday Night Live of its time, spawning the great entertainers of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s—it was the Catskills’ Golden Era.” Even after the proliferation of TV, the major resorts would lure big-ticket names like Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield for a night of laughs. 
Sports, too, were an important part of the kingdoms of the Catskills. Basketball matches were orchestrated for entertainment purposes, and entire NCAA teams would take up residence at the different estates to hone their craft during the extended interim between semesters. “Wilt Chamberlain quite famously spent some time in the mountains, working as a bellboy during the day and playing ball on the resort’s team in the evenings,” says Conway..... 
The hotels were, for a couple of decades, truly magnificent, but Conway insists, “It was all built upon smoke and mirrors.” Behind the resorts’ veneer, unbeknownst to its guests, was a vicious game of one-upmanship that escalated with each passing summer. 
“Each year the largest properties would unveil their latest gadget or gimmick to lure patrons back for the following season,” says Conway, the best example of which was the advent of the indoor pool. In 1958 Grossinger’s revealed a mammoth natatorium bedecked in a generous surplus of art deco detailing. Constructed at a huge cost, it forced the neighboring properties to take on a similar financial burden, and four years later there were over 30 indoor swimming pools in the region. 
“Unable to recoup the insurmountable costs, the hotels struck lending deals with local vendors and banks,” says Conway, but the act of keeping up with the Joneses ultimately proved unsustainable, even for the hegemonies like Grossinger’s, and by the late ’60s most resorts had reached the point of no return. 
Although the end was truly nigh by the end of the decade, rabid overspending wasn’t the sole conspirator in the demise of the Catskills' golden era. Conway refers to the other important factors as the “three ‘A’s”: air conditioning, assimilation, and airfare. 
Sullivan County had long garnered a reputation as a place of wellness, often being quite literally what the doctor ordered for those unable to properly convalesce in the city, but the advent of air conditioning made it less of a necessity—especially for vacationers with smaller budgets—to escape the Big Smoke for breezier weather. 
Dr. Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Northeastern University, founder of the Catskills Institute, and author of Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area, cites the gradual melting away of anti-Semitism in America as “the primary reason for the decrease in the region’s Jewish clientele.” 
As prejudices waned, it became easier and ultimately desirable for Jews to fully assimilate. Once other holidaying destinations around the country lifted their ban on Jewish patrons there was less of a need to coalesce in the Catskills, and as Brown says, “it became easier for young Jewish professionals to find jobs in the city,” meaning that they no longer needed to subsist on summer resort wages to fund their education. 
But on a greater scale, the assimilation slowly chipped away at the tight family bonds formed long ago in the shtetls of Eastern Europe; a great number of American Jews intermarried with other faiths, and divorce became more commonplace in general. The younger generation, keen on being defined as American first before any other trait, saw little need to participate in Jewish activities as well. 
“The broader acceptance of the nation’s Jewish population also led to a massive migration of Jews within America,” notes Brown. They left New York City for Los Angeles and Miami with the same spirit that led the previous generation over from the Old Country, as documented in Debra Dash Moore’s book, To The Golden Cities. 
At Kutsher’s, one of the last great resorts to bite the dust, a security officer stands guard, warning onlookers of the threat of asbestos within. Tractors have parked in front of the ruins; the estate was recently purchased by an Indian lifestyle brand with intensions to sink over $90 million into the development of a yoga retreat. If all goes according to plan, it will be the first step in bolstering the reputation of a county that has its sights set on much more than wellness: The latest aim is to transform the area into a $500 million casino resort. 
Conway is optimistic about the recent renewal in interest in the region’s potential as a center for holidaymakers, but—big, shiny gambling megaliths or not—he’s certain that the golden era of hundreds of his so-called “fortress hotels” is gone forever.

I found another old photograph here:

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