Catskills Tries to Reinvent Itself as Resort Hub

Article excerpt

Forty years ago, when Pat Walsh first started getting his hair trimmed at Bob Meo's barber shop, the town would teem with city folk seeking the cool mountain air.

Both men have seen a lot of change since then, and they're almost the last to remember those music-filled days. Mr. Walsh still runs the hardware store across Main Street, a shop his granddad took over in 1912. Mr. Meo's dad, too, had cut hair here when FDR was president and nearly a million New Yorkers thronged to the Catskills, filling bungalow colonies and ethnic resorts and staying all summer.

"The same people would come every year," says Meo. "They socialized, got to know the locals - we fed them three times a day, and they would bring in singers and dance on the front porches."

But that's in the past. As malls replaced the five-and-dime and airlines made Caribbean beaches just a few hours jaunt, a distinctive tradition of leisure that lasted more than half a century came to a close, causing many small towns that dot these woodland counties to fall into a decades-long slumber.

Today, however, whether it's ripping down a piece of Main Street's historic facade or throwing up the tangled colors of bubbling casino lights, many here are hoping to restore the sleeping region to a semblance of what it was so many years ago. Few believe the Catskills can attain its former status as a vacation mecca, but state legislators are betting that sprawling new casinos in this cash-starved area will bring development and jobs.

Local leaders hope visitors will be drawn to high-rise hotels and slot machines instead of porch swings and the trill of crickets. Even so, others worry that the accompanying crime and traffic will spoil the quaint charm of the region, and make it hard for even Rip Van Winkle to sleep. Donald Trump, worried about the effects on his Atlantic City empire, is suing too.

Casinos replacing comedians

Yet as planning has already begun for the construction of three Native American-run resorts in the region (three more have also been approved for upstate, near Niagara and Buffalo), the renewed attention has uncovered some relics from a forgotten time, and the prospect of change has led some to consider the cultures that thrived here.

In the south, the Catskills became known as the "Borscht Belt," since hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the city would drive up for the summer to "shmeck the beimer" - Yiddish for "smell the trees." In the evenings, Red Buttons, Buddy Hacket, Jerry Lewis, and a host of others did their lounge acts at the summer resorts, while youth worked their way through school as busboys or waiters.

"It was a major transformation for people who were used to living in tenements in the city," says Phil Brown, a professor of sociology at Brown University who has studied the cultural impact of Catskill summers on Jewish life in America. "They came from a culture where vacations were pretty much not a part of Jewish life in the old country. …