GENERATIONS: Evan Hazard: A look back at those 'City Improvements'
Few of you may recognize the terms "Borscht Belt," "Jewish Alps" or "city improvements." That's because most of you are too young, not from Back East, not Jewish, or all three. I am old enough, from Back East, and a quarter Jewish.
"A quarter Jewish"? How can that be? Because "Jewish" refers not only to a religion but also to an ethnic group that arose in the "Holy Land." Theologically, I am a convert to Methodism, from an older Christian tradition. However, my Jewish paternal grandfather immigrated to America in the 1850s from the then Dutch colony of Curaçao. (He later married an Irish Catholic.) When Portugal exiled its Jews in 1495, the Dutch wisely welcomed grandpa's relatively educated, literate ancestors with open arms. Grandpa was a secular (non-practicing) Jew, but that would not have saved me had I been in Germany in the 1930s or '40s.
Anti-semitism is a strange and all-too-persistent sin, and a major stain on Christendom's history. It shows up in an anonymous gospel written in Greek about 90 CE (Common Era or "AD"). It has varied in severity and in ecclesiastical approval over the centuries, and was present to varying degrees in the British colonies and the later United States. When I grew up in Manhattan in the '30s and '40s, I saw it in grade school and junior high, and in various social institutions and practices. Not so much in high school; Stuyvesant, a magnet science high school, was more than half Jewish then. Today, it's largely Asian.
In the 19th through mid-20th centuries, America's hospitality industry was largely anti-semitic, systematically excluding Jews from many hotels and resorts. Learned of this in New York state, but it was not exclusively an East Coast practice. At BSC, a student worked the registration desk at a Minnesota resort one summer about 1960. She told me she was instructed to turn Jews away. Don't know what pretext she was to use, and did not confirm this with the resort, so it will remain nameless.
Back to New York in the '40s and before: big cities are hot in summer, and Jews were mostly urban. (Perspective: this is before domestic air-conditioning, and when indoor plumbing was not universal.) If businessmen could afford it, they might put the family up at a country resort, and visit them weekends. But most were closed to Jews.
Solution: colonize a new, formerly resort-free area, the Catskills, a range of low mountains west of the Hudson River but separate from the Appalachian chain, 80 to 100 miles north of Manhattan. Hence, the "Jewish Alps."
New York's Jews were mostly Ashkenazy Jews, whose ancestors moved into central and eastern Europe when driven from Spain, Portugal, and later, France. They picked up local culture, including a fondness for Russian borscht, a vegetable (often beet) soup. Hence, the "Borscht Belt." Also, Elaine and I had our first lox and cream cheese on bagels in the mid-'50s in Liberty, N.Y. Their language was Yiddish, mostly derived from German, but written with Hebrew letters.
For decades, Yiddish culture thrived in the Catskills, and many famous (mostly Jewish) actors got their start doing comedy in the larger resorts, such as Milton Berle, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Red Buttons, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Joey Adams, Shelley Berman, Joey Bishop, and Fanny Brice ("If I dood it, I get a whipin'; I dood it!). Also, Mel Brooks, Eddie Cantor, Irwin Corey, Bill Dana, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Katz, George Jessel, Alan King, Alan Sherman and Phil Silvers.
With increased ease of air travel and reduced discrimination in the hospitality industry, the Borscht Belt has now pretty much disappeared. Many websites describe its history.
In the late '40s, Cornell students sometimes traveled between Ithaca, N.Y., and Manhattan on buses via Route 17 through the Catskills. We'd often see signs for resorts advertising "City Improvements" (which meant indoor plumbing, rather than a path to an outhouse). By the '70s, when the Borscht Belt was at its height, indoor plumbing may have been universal, but I've had no occasion to travel through the Catskills to find out.
The term "City Improvements" itself may have been confined to the "Jewish Alps," but inside plumbing remained an issue in resort areas into the 21st Century. Some time back I was the oldest member of a group that vacationed at an Upper Midwest spot. Needing a good night's sleep more than most of the younger crowd, I asked the person arranging the jaunt to rent me a separate cabin, well removed from the larger one that housed the late-partying group.
He did, and it was lovely: a sturdy log building comprising one air-conditioned bedroom with two large beds, other furniture, and NOTHING else. No "City Improvements." No plumbing at all, and not even a path. I improvised discreetly, luckily encountering no bears, but have since added a chamber pot to my emergency equipment.
Evan Hazard is a retired BSU biology professor.