It’s happened again: Some large national media outlet has declared that the Catskills are the hot new vacation destination du jour. These stories tend to arrive in my Facebook feed like a case full of ping-pong balls dropped on a concrete floor. It takes awhile for the boinging to die down.
“New Yorkers are trading the overcrowded, overpriced Hamptons for the simpler pleasures of the Catskills,” the story goes. “These days, as FOR SALE signs dot every other rambling dairy farm, big new houses crop up on newly cleared mountaintops, and Two Old Tarts does a brisk trade in almond croissants at the farmer’s market, it’s become clear that these sleepy, charmingly shabby environs are being rediscovered.”
Wait a minute, no…that’s from that 2003 article in New York magazine. Things are totally different now. Two Old Tarts has a building.
“For travelers and transplants alike, trends such as Cabin Porn fever and farm-to-table food culture align exactly with what the Catskills have to offer, all while popular destinations like the Hamptons have grown far too expensive for the common New York City weekender and far too crowded for the exclusive one.”
There it is. It’s from CNN. It’s got a list of new local places to eat and spend the night, most of them started by Manhattan and Brooklyn expats, and geared toward a clientele of the same. Evidence of the new, new revival.
I know the writer a little bit; she’s one of the cofounders of the terrific O-Positive Festival in Kingston. I have no ax to grind with her. Everything she wrote is true. But this story is missing something. A little skepticism — or perhaps a sense of history. When the same story is written a thousand times, year after year, at some point we begin to wonder: When do we get there?
There’s an edge of desperation in the way people around here talk about the always-already-arriving popularity of the Catskills, the way we pepper our social-media posts about every glib new tourism article with exclamation marks. “Great news!” we say, hoping it’s true, feeling a small cold fear that it isn’t quite. “Good things are happening!” Last season was rough, but this one will be good to us. They’ll build the resort soon. The rain will hold off for the big weekend. This is our summer. This is our year.
The Catskills is a place forever trembling on the edge of some hoped-for fulfillment, a sour black raspberry that never quite ripens. In a way, that’s part of the charm.
It’s gauche to say so, though. There’s a pervasive fear that talking critically about the Catskills revival will destroy it — as Eater food critic Robert Sietsema discovered a few years ago, when he had the temerity to snark about beloved local “hickster” restaurant Table On Ten. Local readers reacted, he wrote, “as if I had intentionally crushed a fragile flower under the heel of my boot.”
For as long as there has been a city to the south, the Catskills has been its playground. Our long symbiosis with New York City gives us cultural diversity, and a kind of hybrid vigor. At its best, our relationship is a constant give-and-take. At its worst, it’s a hall of mirrors reflecting endless illusions.
Media buzz around new tourist-oriented ventures is often held up as evidence of local economic success. But without numbers, it is impossible to sort sustainable, profitable businesses from expensive labors of love that will not outlast their owners. As often as not, these stories are about how good the city’s powerful cultural apparatus is at colonizing new territory and waxing self-congratulatory about it. If there is a surer way to get yourself a glowing writeup in Vogue than to leave Brooklyn with a pile of money and start an ironically-retro lodge in the husk of an old Catskills roadside motel, I don’t know what it is. Is that success? Is it progress for the region? That depends entirely on how you define things.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with an editor, a New Yorker who was curious about the place I grew up in and why I came back to it. He asked me a simple question that stopped my forkful of chicken Caesar salad dead in its tracks.
“What’s your hope for the future of the Catskills?”
It was a question that deserved more thought than I’ve given to it. I realized immediately that I didn’t have a proper answer. I made what I hoped was a thoughtful face, and rambled on a bit about small businesses and Main Streets and revitalization, and that all sounds fine. It was a fudge, and I knew it.
What is our bright future? What does it look like? For all our uncountable wealth — green open space, clean air, fresh water, a hardy and self-reliant citizenry, a robust local culture of community support and mutual aid — it is hard to imagine the Catskills truly prospering, without some drastic shift in the greater forces buffeting rural America as a whole.
Culturally, the Catskills are a bright mosaic of urban and rural mores and values. But scratch the surface and we have all the problems of rural Appalachia: addiction, poverty, a greying population, a general purposelessness that siphons the brightest of our young people out of our schools and our communities.
We are lucky to be beautiful. Our best hope, if our economic development leaders and a fire hose of travel magazine articles are to be believed, lies in creating more alluring Catskills experiences to tempt a critical mass of weekenders up into the hills. It is a dangerous hope — depending, as it does, on the changing whims and affections of people who simply do not need us the way we need them. I’m not judging; it’s a hope I share myself, and have worked toward for a long time.
Tourism is surely our brightest prospect. But it’s tempting to think that one day the Catskills might build a more stable future of its own. A future whose gaze is not forever turned southward into the lowlands. Something more than just standing attentively at the tables of those who fled from their own neighbors to sit here in the dark of a country summer’s night, surrounded by fields and fireflies, talking to themselves.
Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her previous columns here.