Letter from America
Hipsters are gentrifying a land of cheap drugs and derelict hotels
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.