Marisa Scheinfeld, the author of The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, out this fall from Cornell University Press, answers frequently asked questions about the making of her book.
On the genesis of The Borscht Belt
I always was around photography. My grandmother always had a camera. She still walks around with one, everywhere she goes. I never used to enjoy being in the photographs. But I’ve grown to understand why she was always taking pictures and enthusiastically posing family members to preserve the moment. I was exposed to the arts at an early age and attended a Montessori school as a young child. In high school I spent all my time in the art room. It was also in high school that I took my first photography class: traditional black-and-white photography. All the magic that happens, and the things that get you hooked, got me there. So I guess in some ways, I never looked back.
The Borscht Belt is a cherished part of Americana, written about countless times in literature and personal memoirs. Yet it is slowly being forgotten.
Before this current project I traveled a lot in Eastern Europe and photographed many of the remaining concentration camps from World War II. When I came back to the States I continued the project and searched for the survivors of these camps to photograph. I had this project of interest I was working on, but I needed something new. Like any artist, I was stuck for a bit, looking for what I wanted to say and what to do next.
I began the Borscht Belt project in graduate school, during a time when I was quite confused about my path as a photographer and what kind of work I wanted to make. I received some advice—to shoot what I know. I knew my hometown region had a vibrant past, and that it had slipped away. I knew that the Borscht Belt region had a great history, this notorious Jewish American, post–World War II era that had thrived and was internationally famous, even though I’d only seen a tiny glimpse of it in its dying days.
I began to make seasonal trips back to New York (I was at the time living in San Diego) and started out by just driving. I drove to hotels and colonies I had never been to before, and others that I recalled visiting as a child. I also did a lot of reading and research. I tried to get my hands on old photos and as much information about the Borscht Belt as I could. It was a cherished part of Americana, written about countless times in literature and personal memoirs. Yet it was slowly being forgotten. The people who had worked and vacationed there were aging, and many abandoned structures were falling apart. These structures had become eyesores, symbols of stagnation, or even failure, in the community. People drive by them daily, and look at them as solely sad—places where people had some of the best times of their lives. I visited these sites multiple times and in many different seasons, and started to see them in a different light.
Photographing the Borscht Belt: decay and rebirth
I consider myself an archeologist of sorts, searching for remnants and relics of an era, equipped with my tool—my camera—and my eyes. I’m interested in time and its effects and in the life cycle itself— the fact that every living thing has a birth and a death and many spaces and moments in between. Even architecture experiences these processes. As a result, the photographs consist of many layers, revealing pieces of not only the past but also the present and even the future.
Many places I’ve captured were familiar to me, but the most familiar one (the Concord Hotel) has been completely demolished. Being on its former location, among a mass of concrete and copper wiring, was surreal and disorienting. Other spots triggered memories, like the card room at the Pines Hotel, where I remember family members and friends visiting and walking through when it was still bustling. Other times, it was an adventure, discovering a hotel ruin that I hadn’t heard of or just going back to one I’d already visited, seeing something different, finding something different. The seasons played a huge role in the documentation of the landscape.
I’m interested in time and its effects and in the life cycle itself— the fact that every living thing has a birth and a death and many spaces and moments in between.
Finding and navigating each ruin in the Borscht Belt, I would feel very much in the presence of something that had passed yet as if participating in the occurrence of something that was new. No longer do these sites serve their intended purpose, but they suggest a sense of animation in their untamed and reclaimed form. Though their original colors and original uses may have faded, the transformed figures, shades, and textures that I found signaled a new sense of vigor, and were utterly alive.
If you look beyond the decay that runs through my photographs, there’s a peculiar beauty in the environment. I think there is potential in that. Tragedy and awe coexist. No longer are these spaces being used as places of leisure as originally intended—dining rooms have become paint ball war zones, local kids have turned showrooms into skate parks, and wild turkeys and other birds live in the guest rooms. For those who spent time in these hotels, the photographs often evoke waves of nostalgia and a feeling of loss. The viewer, taken aback about how a certain lobby or pool looks today, will then conjure up the most enlivening story of how they met someone in that lobby, or worked as a lifeguard at that pool. I am moved that my photographs could stir someone’s emotions in that manner. The goal is to keep someone engaged for more than a second, and think about the photograph long after they’ve seen it.
I began this project using a digital camera but soon after abandoned the method. Film revealed more detail and heightened the experience for me visually. It also provided a truer color. I think it is also appropriate for the time period I am looking back to, as well as a truer form of art when considering photography—a study of light. While I am fluent in digital, I feel the process of film simply possesses more soul. The use of film also slowed me down. In the digital world in which we live, the downside is that we often move (and photograph) entirely too fast—and as a result, we are often not thinking when making images, but instead snapping. With photography, I believe its essential to contemplate and consider.
I am not interested in manipulation, either. These photographs (from a medium-format Pentax camera) are the result of what I made in camera; they are not cropped. I do not move anything. Instead, I move myself and position myself to make the image. The physical structures are unstable, dangerous, and volatile. It was essential to bring someone along for companionship, but also, for issues of safety. Many people helped me access the sites and accompanied me, from my friends to local lawyers and town officials.
Borscht Belt past, present, future
If one looks at the linear history of Sullivan County, it has had three major industries: lumber, leather tanning, and then the one I’ve documented, the hotel industry. When one industry died, another popped up in its place. Right now many things are happening in the region. In fact, this past summer, more than any other time I can recall, there is a feeling of excitement in the area. Many small towns are flourishing, with new stores and increased foot traffic. Others still have yet to reinvent themselves, but the murmurs of change are stirring. The Catskills have long been a destination for people interested in meditation (many former hotels have been repurposed as ashrams), and there is a huge Orthodox Jewish presence—members of those communities have purchased dozens of vacant hotel and bungalow properties. Artists, architects, those who have abandoned city life, are taking abandoned bungalow colonies and motels and turning them into boutique establishments. I believe we are encountering a new iteration of the Catskills.
Marisa Scheinfeld’s photography has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is among the collections of The Center for Jewish History, The National Yiddish Book Center, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and The Edmund and Nancy K. Dubois Library at the Museum of Photographic Arts. More information about The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, including photographs, videos, and map, can be found at www.borschtbeltbook.com