Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld pointed to a pile of rubble at what’s left of the famous Catskills resort hotel the Concord — once a glamorous beast of luxury with 1,200 rooms, three golf courses and a 3,000-seat dining room. “Over here was the outdoor pool, which was a tremendous, Olympic-sized swimming pool that I worked at when I was 15. The pool is now that pile of, whatever that is,” she said, gazing out at an enormous expanse of cable and cement. “You can see why it’s such an eyesore.”
Scheinfeld, 33, grew up in Kiamesha Lake, down the road from the Concord, and has spent the past three years photographing the remains of the region’s catastrophic decline. Since closing in 1998, the Concord has been demolished. And Grossinger’s — the legendary resort that once boasted an airport landing strip and attracted the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy and Jackie Robinson — has become a modern-day ruin.
It wasn’t always this way.
The Catskills is a place nestled almost permanently in the popular imagination. From the 1920s through the ’60s, hundreds of thousands of American Jews flocked to the great hotels, bungalow colonies and camps of the Borscht Belt, as the area in Sullivan and Ulster counties came to be known, trading the stifling heat and pressure of life in New York for the countryside. These were the days of Mel Brooks, the mambo and Simon Says, that quintessential Catskills pastime made famous by social directors who turned an ordinary children’s game into something extraordinary. The names of the hotels alone — the Concord, the Laurels, the Pines, Grossinger’s and Brown’s — were synonymous with natural beauty, American Jewish culture, upward mobility and an inexhaustible menu of activities.
“I just remember that it was very special,” said Philip Lerner, 56, a court officer in the Bronx whose mother and father met playing Simon Says at Grossinger’s and later honeymooned at the resort. “I felt a special connection to my parents… I carried on a tradition.”
In 1953, The New York Times reported that Sullivan County alone boasted 538 hotels, 1,000 boarding houses and 50,000 bungalows. Today, none remain, at least not in their original incarnations.
“We’ve been sitting shiva for the hotels for a long time,” said John Conway, 60, an adjunct professor at SUNY Sullivan who has worked as the Sullivan County historian for more than 20 years.
A conspiracy of forces helped initiate a dramatic shift in the Catskills: The experience that so many had come to love has vanished. In its place a starkly different Catskills has arisen — run down, economically depressed, caught in the past. How did this epic transformation occur? What’s been lost? And what will it take for the community to rise again?