In the mid-20th century, New York’s Catskills were the place to be in the summer months. From the 1920s through the 1990s, those looking for a getaway retreated to one of the hundreds of resorts, bungalow colonies, and rooming houses that dotted the scenic region. Soon known as the Borscht Belt, the area attracted a clientele of predominantly East Coast Jewish Americans and other marginalized groups who could escape the prejudice prevalent at other resorts at the time. In the Catskills, vacationers were entertained by the biggest stars – from Jerry Lewis and Tony Bennet to RuPaul and Fleetwood Mac. Remembered fondly by many, the Borscht Belt has fewer and fewer physical remnants of this golden age each year. Now, a group of passionate New Yorkers are working to commemorate the history of the region with a series of historical markers that are popping up throughout Sullivan and Ulster Counties.. You can join the celebrations surrounding the unveiling of the next two markers this summer!
The Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project has a mission “to interpret and designate places important to the Borscht Belt’s vibrant history and to consider its impact on American Jewish life, the legacy of the Catskills, New York State history, American culture and entertainment, and the ways in which the era’s rich history is enduringly present and woven into the very fiber of the region.” It is the first historical project of its kind for Borscht Belt history.
Unlike the standard blue and yellow markers you see throughout the state, these markers will have both images and text. The blue and tan color pallete pays homage to mid-century aesthetics. The first marker was unveiled back in May at the Ethelbert B. Crawford Library in Monticello, New York. That marker honors the 65 hotels and 133 bungalow colonies in the town. A couple of the resorts noted are Kutsher’s Country Club, which was conencted to athletes like Muhammad Ali and basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, The Laurel’s Hotel and Country Club which was the largest hotel in Sullivan County for a time, and the Lewinters Bungalow Colony.
The Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project was created by Marisa Scheinfeld, an author and photographer who was born in Brooklyn and raised in the Catskills. In 2021, Scheinfeld gave a talk to Untapped New York Insiders about the abandoned resorts of the Borscht Belt and share her haunting photography of those remnants. You can watch a recording here! In that on-demand archive, you’ll also find a recording of our talk with Isaac Jeffreys, the Visual coordinator of the Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project, in which he shared his nighttime images of Borscht Belt and images from his extensive collection of Borscht Belt postcards.
The next two historical markers will be unveiled at Post Hill Road in Moutnain Dale on August 13th and at Swan Lake Park in Swan Lake on August 20th. The Mountain Dale marker unveiling will be accompanied by the opening of a new exhibition by Scheinfeld and Jeffreys titled Day & Night: Return to the Borscht Belt. In the exhibit, both photographers present their work alongside archival material. The August 20th event with feature a live lakside performance from Klezmer Berl’s Hotsie Totsie Orkestra. Learn more about the upcoming events here!
The long-term goals of the project include the creation of a comprehensive self-guided audio driving tour, continued public programming and exhibitions such as film screenings, literary, comedic and musical events which aim to expand upon the marker experience, and educaiotnal materials such as curricula for students and the local Orthodox community. All in the name of preserving and celebrating the legacy of this vibrant time in New York’s history!