It’s almost Labor Day, when the last summer vacationers will be leaving the Catskills. It’s pretty safe to say that most of them left a long time ago, though. The area known as the Borscht Belt is where countless middle-class Jewish families streamed up from New York City and spent their summers in the countless hotels and bungalow colonies. It’s where young comedians like Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Mel Brooks plied their trade. Where nobody puts Baby in a corner. Today, it looks more like the Rust Belt.
I spent about half my childhood here as the son of school teachers but never got to see the area in its heyday. Never got to take advantage of the vast entertainment infrastructure that existed from the ’40s to the ’60s. The interstate highway system and cheap airfare brought everyplace in the country that much closer to New York City, and everyone apparently decided to vacation someplace else. Today, a lot of the old hotels are just sitting empty, waiting to burn down. Or waiting to be turned into a casino.
Ever since I could read I remember seeing a billboard practically begging, “Casinos mean jobs.” Atlantic City had just legalized gambling, trying to bring back their own lost summer crowds and it was another nail in the coffin of the Borscht Belt. They’re still pushing for gambling in the Catskills, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering ending the state’s gambling ban. It’s too late, though.
State governments don’t really want their own residents gambling. It’s always a losing proposition*, so it’s best to get out-of-state suckers to spend their paychecks at the craps table. You want your residents spending their money on the mortgage and sending their kids to college instead. That’s why casinos are usually located near state borders. The problem for New York State is that it’s surrounded by legalized gambling, so most of the gamblers they get will be New Yorkers. I doubt that will stop legalization, though. The state’s coffers have too many holes right now. And the Catskills will finally get their wish.