Phil Brown

Distributed October 2000
Copyright ©2000 by Phil Brown
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 735 Words


Phil Brown

The Catskills always survive
Novelists, journalists, local residents and many others have forecast the Catskills’ decline. But while the resort area is a fragment of its past glory, the Catskills are crawling with all sorts of developments, from casinos to old hotels converted into modest private homes.

The Catskills resorts are closed for the season now, but it feels like many decades have passed and that the whole glorious era is closing down. All but the few hotels that stayed open year-round would put away the Adirondack chairs (why can’t we call them “Catskill chairs?”), empty the pool, clean the brocade curtains and burnish the silver one last time. Hotel owners, workers and guests would return to New York City, Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey wondering what changes would occur over the winter. Which hotels would fail to open? Would that nice family from Astoria return? Would a busboy come back finally as a waiter?

When some 600 hotels and 500 bungalow colonies graced two-lane Routes 42, 52 and 17B in southeastern New York, there were lots of possibilities and lots of survivors. No more. There are about enough hotels to count on my left hand. And sadly, the Paramount Hotel in Parksville burned down while I was writing this.

Yet amid the decline come tales of development. A deal is underway in which Kutsher’s will sell land to Park Place Entertainment, which will operate a casino for the St. Regis Mohawk tribe. In the process, Kutsher’s will be spruced up and other resort facilities will be constructed. At the Sixth Annual Catskills Institute conference, attendees also heard about Capelli Enterprises’ plans to refurbish and reopen the famed Concord and Grossingers. Amazing? Those competitors, the two biggest hotels when they were still operating, now owned by the same firm! That may be the biggest surprise in the Catskills’ history. The Nevele Grande (used to be the side-by-side Nevele and the Fallsview) was recently bought by Stratford Business Corp. which has some exciting plans for a more upscale resort.

Here’s the big secret: The Catskills always survive! Novelists, journalists, local residents and many others have forecast the Catskills’ decline since the 1940s, yet the post-World War II era was stellar for more than two decades. In truth, there’s no mistaking that the hotel industry is a fragment of its past glory. But there are a surprising number of bungalow colonies still running, and a good number are secular. It’s not going to look at all like it used to, when hotels and bungalow colonies brought a million guests each summer, when energetic youngsters worked their way through college and medical school, when every comic worth his laughs got a start working three or four shows each weekend night, where dreams of upward mobility and social belonging were made true. But “The Mountains” are surviving in yet one more era.

The Catskills are crawling with all sorts of developments big and small. Hasidic and other ultraorthodox Jews fill niches in Sullivan and Ulster counties, providing a population and summer economy that fosters a certain liveliness and bustle. Brown’s in Loch Sheldrake is now Grandview Palace Condominiums and you can buy your old room from the 1960s – now with kitchenette – for under $30,000. People who used to stay at hotels are now buying part of their former vacation spots. I drive the side roads, finding structures that are clearly old hotel buildings, but are now private homes – many modest, some elegant. Almost everyone lets me in to talk about what their homes used to be. One woman worked in a small hotel, then later stayed in bungalow colonies next to it and finally bought one of its buildings to live in. They are living in their history. This also is where new summer homes are going up – a summer rental in the Hamptons costs more than a year of your kid’s college, so that’s out.

So there will be new developments, but old touches remain. Kutsher’s may be dealing with gambling corporations and Indian nations, but Helen Kutsher, the “first lady of the Catskills,” still greets guests at the desk and schmoozes with them in the dining room. The Catskills Institute has been running its annual History of the Catskills Conference since 1995, collecting archives, publishing a newsletter and maintaining a Web site for the many people who want to dwell in those pleasant memories of summer. As long as anyone remembers the golden years of culinary calisthenics in the dining room, plaster of Paris statues in the day camp, comics in the casino, Simon Sez at the pool, romance in the staff quarters and clean mountain air for the city-bound clientele, those Catskills memories will remain.


Phil Brown is a Brown University sociology professor and author of Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat's Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area. His collection of fiction and nonfiction, titled In the Catskills: A Century of the Jewish Experience in ‘The Mountains’ will be published in early 2002 by Columbia University Press. The Catskills Institute Website is located at www.brown.edu/Research/Catskills_Institute/

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