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The main entrance to the pool was boarded up, so we took an overgrown path toward a side door, passing a small, gutted brick building with pipes and wires dangling from the ceiling. Walking into the pool’s atrium was like entering a cathedral of decay. The first thing I noticed was the smell: moldy, damp, earthen. Then the sound: pure silence, aside from leaves rustling outside and a faint, steady drip of water from the roof. And then the sheer size: massive, with three walls of windows, an enormous lofted ceiling and a yawning patio with lush green ferns growing up through the red-and-white checkerboard-tiled floor. Windows are covered in spray paint. And there in the center is the drained swimming pool, an empty coffin lined with graffiti.
Scheinfeld knelt down on the slippery, mossy ground, clasped her medium-format camera and started clicking.
“As a kid, the hotels were like my playgrounds. They were devoid of the crowds that once existed, but I didn’t care,” she said. Working as a lifeguard at the Concord, she met her first boyfriend, played bingo and shuffleboard, and visited her grandfather in the card rooms. “While I only had a taste for it at the end, as a child… I was experiencing a bit of what it once was.”
For the past three years, Scheinfeld has been photographing the ruins of the Borscht Belt hotels and bungalow colonies, memorializing the region’s decline and revealing in fine detail the effects of time, nature and neglect.
“In another 20 years or 10 years, these hotels might not be here, so this project serves as a record…. It’s horrible that the hotels fell into the state that they’re in,” she said.
Scheinfeld plans to publish a book of her work, including 80 photos of hotel ruins (edited down from hundreds); more than a dozen re-photographic images (also called “now and then photography,” which involves selecting an old image and then taking the very same photo from the same vantage point today) and a collection of ephemera.
Today, a few large companies own what’s left of the fortress hotels. The Concord is owned by EPR Properties, formerly Entertainment Properties Trust, save for a couple hundred acres where the original main buildings sit. Those are owned by Cappelli Organization, a real estate development and construction company that also owns most of Grossinger’s, including the golf course. Recently, Cappelli proposed a hotel-casino-spa at Grossinger’s. Meanwhile, EPR has plans for a multi-hundred million dollar year-round resort.
These plans for expansion depend in part on casinos being approved in the election this November.
“It might be really great if the area sees gambling,” Scheinfeld said, “but I think it needs to go back to the basics and bring people here for what it was known for: nature, this respite for New Yorkers to get out of the stifling city and into the country.”
For those who, like Scheinfeld, are invested in the region’s future, sitting back as the community slides further into depressed economic times simply isn’t in the Catskills’ DNA.
“I think there will be a revival,” Scheinfeld said. “If you look at the industries that existed (lumber, tanning, tourism), each one failed, but something always sprung up in its place. The county has always prospered and faltered and renewed itself again and again.”
Abigail Jones is the senior editor and head of special projects at The Forward. She also edits its women’s blog, The Sisterhood. Find her on Twitter @abigaildj