MilliCal was watching Dirty Dancing a couple of weeks ago, and our discussion turned to the Borscht Belt. I decided to look up Grossinger’s (and other BB resorts).
Wow! I knew they had closed, and assumed they’d been torn down. Not so. They have been left standing, and slowly deteriorating, but in such a way that you can see their original glory. There are still pool lounges, hair dryers in the beauty shop, furniture in the rooms, and records in the offices. But it all looks like those scenes of Urban Decay in Detroit, or pictures fro m old asylums in NJ from Weird N.J. magazine. Here are some sites with pictures from there and other abandoned hotels:
I was living in the area back in the early eighties as these resorts were finally closing down. The locals saw it as sad but inevitable. The guests just weren’t coming anymore. Cheap air travel meant that nobody wanted to spend a vacation in the Catskills. So places that were designed for hundreds of guests were lucky if they were getting a couple dozen. The lack of guests meant lack of income and that meant the places couldn’t afford to pay for the maintenance and staff that resorts this size needed. These places were already becoming decrepit before they officially closed.
One place, Kutsher’s, tried to stay open. It pretty much showed why all of the others had closed. It was trying to function as a hotel and resort as it was fallingapart.
One history I’ve read claimed that the “Borscht Belt” rfesorts got started and made it big because ca lot of hotels wouldn’t rent to Jews, so the Catskills resorts became their preserve. It apparently parallels the Idlewild resort in Michigan which catered to blacks in the pre-Civil Rights era (when black families going opn vacation had to carry a Green Guide with them to be aware of which hotels and motels would let them stay). Again, an enclave for people marginalized by the vacation industry at large. In both cases, you had top entertainment by the jewish or black performers.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act* and the widespread use of pre-booking with credit cards and the like, hotels and motels stopped banning minorities, which was good for society in general and for those minorities, but bad for their special resorts. Like the Borscht Belt resorts, Idlewild dwindled away, although it’s apparently still there.
I don’t think there’s a comparable situation today. Sandals isn’t a retreat for an otherwise scorned minority. It may go away, but under completely different circumstances.
*I recently wrote a chapter for a book on a racial incident at a professional society meeting back in 1964, where black participants couldn’t stay at the same hotel in a Southern city that the other conferees did. It prtovoked a change in the Society’s policies, but the passage of the Civil Rights Act prevented any large-scale changes to the Society’s charter. Two years later the NAACP held a meeting at that same hotel.
I’m in the Catskills right now, and I come here every summer, to an Orthodox Jewish bungalow colony. There are quite a few of these old-style Borscht Belt resorts that have been pretty much abandoned that I drive past on a regular basis. The old clientele was mostly non-Orthodox Jews, who aged out of New York life to retirement in Florida, and their children intermarried and assimilated and just never really grew up with the “Yiddish” sense of humor. Heck, Dirty Dancing itself, which brought about your inquiry, is about an girl romancing out of the religion. You can bet that Baby’s kids aren’t hearing too many “Oy Veys”.
Although not a religious barrier or a race barrier, there are sexual orientation and activity barriers that have resulted in resorts and cruises that focus on serving people who would not be welcome or would not feel comfortable being themselves openly or would prefer to have a vacation in an environment populated by people of similar orientations or interests, e.g. gays, nudists and swingers.
Oh, I was just reading about this, and looking at the pictures, just a few months ago. Shocking, truly shocking. There is something about the ruins of …whatever…Detroit being the most spectacular…that are almost pornographic. Imagine, all that, just LEFT there. Shocking, and sad. Where are all those people going on their ‘cheap plane fare’ vacations? Why NOT drive an hour away? Other resorts in other states are doing OK, AFAIK. I know Mr. Sally Barry would jump in the car and drive to a resort town in our state, the chances of him taking a ride on a plane to someplace in Florida are ZERO. But then,we aren’t Jewish living in NYC, so I don’t know what they think is fun.
My parents went to Kutsher’s every year when I was away at at camp as a kid Last time they went was about 10 years ago and we went up for a few days to visit them. It was in such disrepair, mice in the rooms, food was awful, pool was half-filled. Very sad.
It’s more than just that though -although the Borscht Belt gets all the attention there were similar resorts in the “Italian Catskills” and even I think some Irish ones. Unless hotels wouldn’t rent to them either.
There is no modern equivalent except for the few smaller resorts that remain. Part of the reason for the downturn is that plane travel is so much less expensive now and part of it was that people who grew up vacationing in those places just don’t want that sort of vacation anymore. I used to bring my kids to a dude ranch that I think was in the Catskills (it may have been just outside) and it was always full- but there were lots of things to do. Five or six activities going on at a time plus horseback riding all day and the pools and the gym. The Catskills resorts I went to as a kid ( and one I still go to for a family reunion*) didn’t have much to do. Pools, a lake with paddleboats , ballfields , bingo , bocce, maybe golf, entertainment in the bar after dinner - and that was it.
One of the reasons we go to this place is because there isn’t much to do, so we all hang out by the pool/bocce courts all day. If we went to a place with more to do, we’d only see each other at meals.
Did you read past the sentence you quoted? Because immediately after, I said that the same thing applied to blacks as well, which is certainly “more than that”. Although, I must admit, I had not heard of similar Italian or Irish resorts.
I didn’t mean that more groups than the Jews faced discrimination - I meant that there were other factors in the resorts’ rise and fall than catering to people who couldn’t vacation anywhere else because of discrimination. It’s no coincidence that the Catskills are an easy drive/bus ride from NYC, for one thing.
Ageed. most stories on the vdecline of the Catskills mention that, and I thought I’d included it in my post, but see that I hadn’t. Nevertheless, they tend to ignore the “enclave:” part of the equation, as if access to airlines explained it all.
Now that you mention that, it reminds me of another factor that was no doubt involved in the Borscht Belt’s popularity - the preferences/requirements of the vacationers. There’s a difference between Jewish people vacationing at predominately Jewish resorts because they weren’t welcome at other resorts and vacationing there because the other resorts didn’t meet their religious requirement for kosher food, for example. Enclaves can form for reasons other than scorn.
I’d say modern equivalents would be resort areas that attract a regional rather than national crowd; Branson, Gatlinburg, Hot Springs, the Poconos, “cottage country” areas like the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and the Muskokas, and maybe casino enclaves outside of Las Vegas, like Atlantic City and Biloxi. Not necessarily ethnic-specific destinations, though.
Niagara Falls NY/ON is becoming something of a destination for Asian Indians, and Indian immigrants in North America.