Resort Culture in the Catskills

I’ve been thinking a lot about intangible culture recently, and whether or not it applies in the case of the Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park.

The Catskills Mountains are a beautiful sliver of the Appalachians, much of which is a forest preserve. Although the mountains were first settled by Dutch-American farmers, the region’s poor soil, natural beauty, and proximity to New York City soon led to development as a tourist destination. By 1900, over 500,000 people trained to the mountains each summer, many to stay at the enormous, luxurious resorts that dotted the mountains.

However, as the twentieth century wore on, resort vacations became less popular. Visitors dwindled. Resorts closed. The region slipped into an economic slump, which has persisted into the modern day.

The Catskills economy is still heavily dependent on tourists, although modern vacationers are fewer in number and have a greater personal (and economic) attachment to the region than did historic visitors. Many are city dwellers with weekend homes who chose the mountains for their solitude.

This is the background against which the Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park proposal has smoldered for over a decade. The plan calls for two large hotels, 96 additional residences, and a full golf course abutting state-owned ski slopes. Locals who support it cite the benefit the resort will have on the economy—over five hundred permanent jobs and a steady source of tourist dollars to reinvigorate local businesses. However, many locals are also in opposition to the plan, as they don’t want any more outsiders, and many also fear being priced out of the mountains. Second home owners are also split: some want to preserve the solitude of the Catskills and others believe that the benefit to the local economy will provide a more booming local economy and varied activities.

For its part, the media team for the Belleayre Resort has chosen to present the proposed construction as a continuation of the region’s defunct resort heritage. According to their website, “The Belleayre Resort represents a new chapter in the Catskill region’s storied history as a venerable tourist destination.” They emphasize that the area immediately around Belleayre once had 10,000 beds, but this number has shrunk to 450. Much of the built heritage of the old Catskills resorts is gone—burnt, demolished, or decaying. The construction of the Belleayre Resort would not be historic preservation (or reconstruction) in a materials sense. However, could it be viewed as the reconstruction of a cultural heritage? Or of an economic heritage? Historically, the Catskills was a leader in resort culture—it’s what the region is known for. And the region is still reliant on tourism; the construction of the resort would be a scaling up, restoring the lost, large-scale vacation culture that once existed to this small section of the Catskills.

To answer my own questions, I don’t think the new resort will be a resuscitation of historic tradition—there are too many modern amenities, and resort culture itself has changed: vacationing has become more private over the years, and you don’t see as much mingling at modern resorts as you do in Dirty Dancing. But I do think tourism is an ingrained part of the Catskills history and its present. And I think a case could be made for reintroducing resorts to restore the region’s historic economic base.

The history of the Catskills referenced in this post was drawn from David Stradling’s Making Mountains, which I read for a 2012 paper about ethnic communities in the Catskills (which is a fascinating subject).

Stradling, David. Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007. Print.

Additional information on the Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park can be found here:

http://www.belleayreresort.com

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