We’ve made a few trips to explore the abandoned resorts of the Borscht Belt of New York. Once places like Grossinger’s, the Concord, Kutscher’s and the Pines, were the epitome of a swanky summer holiday for New Yorkers. All through the Catskills were dozens of all-inclusive resorts, glitzy enough to entice the mostly Jewish, upper-middle class holiday makers from the city, and today virtually all of them have either been torn down, or lie in ruins. But if you were spending your summer vacation in the Borscht Belt, chances were you made your way through the town of Monticello. So what happened to the town at the centre of them all?
We went to go explore old, historic Monticello, to discover a town that has struggled since the heyday of the 1950s, but with light at the end of a tunnel in the form of a new casino.
Named after Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home, Monticello can be found a few hours north of New York City. The largest town in Sullivan County, during the 1940s and 50s – the peak years of the Borscht Belt – tens of thousands would pass through the picturesque town every week.
A harness horse racing track opened in 1958, nicknamed the Mighty M. As the Borscht Belt thrived, the area attracted the likes of Woody Allen, Elizabeth Taylor and Mel Brooks. So many people passed through Monticello, the town became known as the ‘Gateway to the Catskills’.
Its principal thorough-fare was Broadway. The main street through the town was widened and lined with restaurants, hotels, and movie theatres such as the Art Deco Rialto.
Today however, most of the grand buildings found on Broadway are shuttered and closed. The old red brick buildings and store fronts are redolent of an Edward Hopper main street, but for all its charming vintage look, it is hard to shake off a melancholy air of decline.
The Rialto itself was torn down about a decade ago. For a while its evocative marquee and front was kept on Broadway, although that has now gone as well.
The Borscht Belt might have been up-scale, and at one time the height of fashion, but once cheaper air-fares became more widely available in the 1960s, spending your summer holidays in lower reaches of upstate New York didn’t seem quite as grand.
As Max Kellerman put it in Dirty Dancing, a film set in a fictional Borscht Belt resort, “You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want.”
Suffering an economic decline similar to the fortunes of Atlantic City, once the revelers stopped coming to spend their summer dollars, Monticello swiftly suffered.
Can this once grand destination and quaint town will blossom again?
Perhaps the fortunes of Monticello are about to take a turn for the better. This spring sees the hope of business return, in the shape of a brand new casino complex. Located just outside the town, Resorts World Catskills aims to bring “back some of the glitz” to the Catskills. Complete with an 18-story hotel, bars, restaurants, spas and concert venues, perhaps Monticello will once again become a popular tourist destination…
While glass skyscrapers might not be everyone’s idea of glamour, it does promise to bring thousands of jobs to the struggling town. Back in 2009, the New York Times interviewed Tania Grossinger, the cousin of Jennie Grossinger, grand matriarch of the once plush resort bearing her family name. “I don’t know what’s going to come first – gambling or the messiah. It’s been so many years, and there’s been so many promises, so many false hopes, and nothing has happened.”
In the meantime, taking a trip up to Monticello, NY certainly guarantees that you’ll beat the crowds.