Let­ter from Amer­ica

Hip­sters are gen­tri­fy­ing a land of cheap drugs and derelict ho­tels

The Oldie - - NEWS - Dr Do­minic Green teaches pol­i­tics at Bos­ton Col­lege, Mas­sachusetts do­minic green

Amer­i­cans don’t like to ad­mit it, but they are for­eign­ers in their own land.

The place is so vast and var­i­ous that only trav­el­ling sales­men, pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and serial killers visit all fifty states. Texas is big­ger than France. Mas­sachusetts, the state where I live, is six­teen times big­ger than Hert­ford­shire, the county where I grew up.

Now in our thir­teenth year in Amer­ica, my wife and I are try­ing to ex­pand our men­tal maps of the north-east. We also feel obliged to show our chil­dren that ‘Amer­ica’ is more than Europhile, ex-pat, tea-drink­ing, col­lege-town Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts.

So, hav­ing ad­mired the ar­ti­sanal cheese­works of Ver­mont, the book barns of Con­necti­cut, and the meth labs of New Hamp­shire, we turned, like so many im­mi­grants be­fore us, to the in­fi­nite hori­zon to the west. We de­cided to go to a ren­o­vated re­sort in the Catskills.

Ev­ery­one has heard of the Catskills. Amer­i­cans would call them a ‘sto­ried des­ti­na­tion’. In the Twen­ties, work­ing­class Jews, de­ranged by the heat in New York City and ex­clu­sion from the re­sorts on the At­lantic coast, would es­cape in the sum­mer to the Hud­son Val­ley, and the lakes and woods of the Catskill Moun­tains. They came to the ‘Jewish Alps’ in such num­bers that the wood cab­ins and board­ing houses turned into bun­ga­low colonies and gi­ant re­sorts.

By its Fifties hey­day, the ‘Borscht Belt’ con­tained more than five hun­dred ho­tels, with a sup­port­ing net­work of syn­a­gogues, sum­mer camps and stand-up co­me­di­ans. All the funny Jews worked at the ho­tels: Henny Young­man, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Ma­son, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Sid Cae­sar, Billy Crys­tal.

In the Six­ties, the ho­tels lost their clien­tele to as­sim­i­la­tion, de­seg­re­ga­tion and the in­ven­tion of Mi­ami Beach.

The big ho­tels be­gan to close in the Seven­ties, when a young Jerry Se­in­feld

was learn­ing his craft. At the same time, the mill towns of the Hud­son Val­ley lost their mills.

What has hap­pened since to the Catskills is no joke. I had seen Marisa Sche­in­feld’s The Borscht Belt: The Re­mains of Amer­ica’s Jewish

Va­ca­tion­land (2016), with its dis­mal cat­a­logue of flooded, fire-black­ened lob­bies and empty, mossy swim­ming pools. I had not re­alised the dev­as­ta­tion was so ex­ten­sive. Ninety min­utes north of New York, Amer­ica was slid­ing back into the primeval woods.

In a small re­sort on a coun­try road, deer wan­dered through the door­less, roof­less cab­ins to nib­ble at trees that had grown through the floors. Cars were set at rak­ish an­gles in ditches, wheels clamped with weeds. A fam­ily wob­bled into their half-house; the other half had al­ready col­lapsed back into the for­est.

We had to buy food. A sign for ‘Fresh Meat’ led to a vend­ing ma­chine that dis­pensed plas­ti­cised steaks and chops. So we pushed on to the near­est su­per­store, which rose out of the trees like a tur­ret on Hadrian’s Wall. The young peo­ple had the pin eyes of opi­oid users. Ev­ery­one else looked pre­ma­turely wiz­ened from drink and to­bacco, or swollen with high-fruc­tose corn syrup. Teeth were op­tional in this land of cheap meth and ex­pen­sive den­tal in­sur­ance.

I had been in ru­ral Crete a few weeks ear­lier. There is poverty in Greece, but not this de­cay, this loss of all dig­nity. There re­ally was no such thing as so­ci­ety here; only in­di­vid­u­als stag­ger­ing around, shell-shocked in the ruins.

Per­haps be­cause it can­not get much worse, it has started to get a lit­tle bet­ter. The Catskills are un­der­go­ing a patchy re­vival. His­panic im­mi­grants, es­cap­ing drug wars in South Amer­ica and New York City, are mov­ing into the towns. Ortho­dox Jews, squeezed out of Brook­lyn by their birthrate and a plague of hip­sters, are cre­at­ing a ver­sion of shtetl life.

And the hip­sters, squeezed out of Brook­lyn by other hip­sters, are over­flow­ing up­state too. Ortho­dox Jews and hip­sters share punc­til­ious­ness in diet and dress, and also a taste for fa­cial hair. Of course, the hip­sters are eas­ier to spot, with their or­ganic lo­ca­vorism and ironic mous­taches.

We ar­rived late on Fri­day af­ter­noon. The His­pan­ics were stock­ing up at the su­per­store, and the Sab­bath was com­ing in. Groups of young Ortho­dox men strolled along dusty roads like ex­tras from Yentl.

At our re­sort, hip­sters flit­ted through the trees to greet us. Our host­ess gave me a flier for a pig roast at a church re­pur­posed as the Church of the Lit­tle Green Man. The pic­ture on the flyer showed a naked, masked woman rid­ing bare­back on a horse led by a man wear­ing not much apart from a deer’s head. He had a full set of antlers. I thought we had been in­vited to an orgy – I hadn’t shaved – and I re­mem­bered Henny Young­man’s catch­phrase, ‘Take my wife – please!’

But they were only con­cep­tual artists. We be­lieved that our hosts had gone back to the land, but they turned out to be city peo­ple, too. They had kept their condo in Brook­lyn and re­fur­bished the re­sort so they could do some­thing ironic at the week­end. As dusk fell, their hip­ster friends de­scended on us.

It was night, and we were miles from the near­est meat dis­pen­sary. We were trapped, a cap­tive au­di­ence for a per­for­mance art that was all per­for­mance and no art. The hip­sters glow­ered at us across the com­mu­nal camp­fire. In the shad­ows, a stu­diously un­washed boy called Raz­zle hunted our square kids with his cat­a­pult. We’d gone look­ing for the real Amer­ica. And we’d found it.

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