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The Borscht Belt and the Beauty of Decay

Alyssa Goldstein
September 28, 2011

[caption id=“attachment_7372” align=“alignleft” width=“300”] Photograph by Matt Mallams[/caption]

by Alyssa Goldstein

I’ve just started my senior year at Bard, where you have to write a masters-length thesis before you can graduate. Because I’ve been reading frantically about gender and Zionism and bodies and Orientalism and Theodor Herzl’s sexual anxieties, I haven’t gotten the chance to post here in awhile. But I have been doing some cool stuff here at school, some of which doesn’t even involve beer. For instance, I’m taking an art history class, History of the Museum. In addition to reading about the peculiar ways the information in museums has been displayed over time, we’re going to make our own online exhibit and archive about the areas around Route 209, the road that stretches through Ulster County, NY. My professor got the idea for the project as she drove this road to Woodbourne Prison, where she teaches for the Bard Prison Initiative. Though the route seems boring and is dreary in the winter, a bit of research turned up that there is a lot more to it than there seems. It is one of the oldest roads in the United States: approximately 12,000 years old, in fact. It runs through areas whose histories have been both utopic and brutal: areas of Dutch settlement, ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, once-successful towns now struggling after the demise of the Delaware & Hudson Canal, Eastern and Woodbourne Prisons, the lost retreats of the Borscht Belt.

As I was trying to choose which aspect of Route 209 I wanted to research, I called my dad and asked him if we had any family connection to the Borscht Belt, that area of the Catskills that served as a popular summer resort location for Jews from New York City. We had both gone to Camp Shomria, the Hashomer Hatzair summer camp in Liberty, NY, but my family of Brooklyn Jews surely must have gone to some of the hotels or bungalows. It turns out that not only had my family visited the area frequently, but my great-great uncle had actually owned the Golden Hotel in Hurleyville, NY, where the comedian Buddy Hackett first performed. I’m not sure where exactly the hotel was, or if the building still stands.

However, some of the abandoned hotels and bungalow colonies are still around. One of the most famous of these is Grossinger’s in Liberty, NY. My dad used to tell me stories about Grossinger’s: back before safety was invented, Camp Shomria used to do a fun activity called “survival day” where they would dump the groups of kids off in the middle of the woods and have them find their way back to the camp. Instead of being good little socialists, the kids would make their way to Grossinger’s, where they would do some singing and dancing for the hotel guests and make a lot of money.

In any case, Grossinger’s is still standing and unlocked, presumably free for anyone who wants to wander around to do so. Apparently a lot of people have. Just a quick search on YouTube will bring up dozens of videos by people who have explored it and been captivated by its strange, decaying beauty. I’m also incredibly fascinated by the empty swimming pool, the moss growing in the lobby, the deck chairs still set out. There’s something about an abandoned space that I (and apparently many others) find so interesting--the fact that everything is as it was left, that these are spaces that were once filled with human activity but now stand empty as nature slowly reclaims them. But it also raises the question--if Grossinger’s is actually frequently visited by people who come to explore, take pictures, spray graffiti, smoke weed, or relive their memories, is it really abandoned? Has it begun a new life as a nostalgic symbol, of which its decay is a central element?

NOTE: If you are someone who has had experiences with Castskill hotels or Bungalow colonies, and you would like to add your story to this online archive that my class is putting together about the area, please let me know by emailing me at (also with any questions you may have). It’s going to be a very nice archive that future generations of students will continue to add to. Your stories will help enrich this resource, and I would really appreciate your contribution.