The Catskills region is maddeningly elusive on the map. You can point to it, but try to draw a line around it and you’ll find that its borders are whimsically vague. Larger than the “blue line” of the Catskill Park, sprawling beyond the borders of New York City’s Catskill-Delaware watershed, as loosely delineated as the boundaries of the old Hardenbergh Patent, the Catskills might be four counties, or six, or a rumpled mass of foothills sprawled across a dozen. Even the name “Catskills” dances a fine line between singular and plural: Catskills is, or Catskills are?
In the region’s more remote corners, maps become shifty and unreliable. Towns give way to hamlets, and then to half-forgotten places without so much as a zip code of their own; the names of roads change without warning between one end and the other. The wilder parts of the Catskills have an intimate geography best known only to their inhabitants, like Lake of the Coheeries, a fictional town from a Mark Helprin novel that has one foot in the Hudson Valley and the other in the land of Faerie.
Borders aren’t our strong suit around here. It’s no wonder we’ve let the world draw so many of them right through our backyards.
The Catskill Mountains are crisscrossed with political and cultural lines that meander across the landscape like so many invisible trout streams, carving the landscape into more tame and manageable pieces. The result of all this slicing and dicing is that little attention gets paid to the Catskills as a whole, either by its own residents or by the larger powers that be.
It’s no surprise that the New York State Legislature has carved the Catskills into squiggly chunks in making their legislative districts — that’s what they do, from the boroughs to Buffalo. But even in a state teeming with wild gerrymanders, the Catskills is home to one of the most exotic specimens: the current 101st Assembly District, a 127-mile-long zigzag, or maybe a severely anorexic seahorse, cobbled awkwardly from the politically unappetizing leftovers of neighboring territories. Running from Utica to Newburgh, the district cuts a narrow stripe right through the heart of the Catskills. Some voters of the district live a good four-hour drive from their representative; a Times Herald-Record reporter joked that you’d need a helicopter to travel from one end of it to the other.
County lines cut deep in the Catskills. Travel from Catskill to Kingston to Delhi and you’ll find three entirely different systems of government. Each county has its own way of running things, and even when they’re forced to collaborate — like, for instance, on group efforts like the Catskills Association for Tourism Services, the four-county board that manages Catskills tourist marketing — they often make uncomfortable bedfellows.
Instead of a single effort to promote Catskills tourism, we have four, all clamoring and jostling with one another for the attention of visitors who don’t know the Barkaboom from the Beaverkill. The Great Northern Catskills, a creation of Greene County, is not to be confused with the Great Western Catskills, a marketing campaign run on a shoestring by chronically-underfunded Delaware County. Then there’s the Sullivan County Catskills, whose Chamber of Commerce beat the rest of us to the SEO punch years ago by seizing the web address for catskills.com. And of course, there’s Ulster County — a place that tends to throw in its lot with the more cultivated Hudson Valley rather than the down-at-heel Catskills, and whose marketing arm would like to remind us all that it is Alive.
Lines across the landscape cut deepest when there’s money involved. Each year, New York State doles out millions of dollars in economic development funds through the Regional Economic Development Councils, presided over by local business and nonprofit bigwigs. The Councils are organized around metropolitan labor markets, and the Catskills counties are split up into several different regions — an arrangement that makes rural Delaware County the poor relation of the manufacturing-heavy counties of the Southern Tier, and Greene County a backwoods satellite of Albany. With no way to advocate for the region as a whole, rural Catskills voices are divided and outnumbered, and must shout to be heard over the hum of larger industry.
Ecology binds the Catskills together into a whole, but even here, you find divisions. The state Department of Environmental Conservation cuts the state into chunks, and the line between Regions 3 and 4 runs right through the middle of the Catskills.
The most hardened lines of all are those of the New York City watershed. The land that drains into the city’s reservoirs is a nation unto itself, with its own bitter politics, its own laws and its own strange Monopoly-money economy, all overlaid in patchwork on the Catskills landscape.
For me, the division that rankles the most is one most people rarely notice: the way the Catskills region is fragmented by the geography of local news. Connect the points of the region’s daily papers on a map — the Freeman, the Daily Star, the Daily Mail and the Times Herald-Record — and you’ll outline a huge rural territory where the news coverage gets scarcer the closer you get to the center.
Whether public or private, the mapmakers’ lines carve the Catskills region up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The surprising exception is our Congressional district, the rural 19th. Like the rest of New York’s Congressional districts, it was drawn by a panel of federal judges in 2013 after the state Legislature couldn’t stop bickering over boundaries. Politically, the 19th is a swing district, balanced on a razor’s edge. It gives the Catskills a respectful berth, running from just outside Binghamton in the west all the way to the eastern state line.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the furor currently raging around our Congresssman John Faso, the 19th District represents a rare chance for the rural Catskills to speak with one voice, and to be heard in the halls of power — at least until the 2020 Census rolls around, and the mapmakers start slicing us up all over again.