Past Present

The Catskills Gets Its Groove Back, With Brooklyn’s Help

The gorgeous rural area, 100 miles outside New York, has languished for years—until now, with craft bars, cool inns, and ex-urbanite incomers looking to radically change their lives.

01.28.15 10:45 AM ET

Suddenly, “the Catskills” is everywhere, branded and proud. First you notice the word on the cheese at the local greenmarket, then you try Catskills craft brew at your favorite pub, the Catskills then makes the news when its casino plans get the go-ahead, and finally you hear it when Governor Cuomo’s passes his anti-fracking legislation.

This sudden omnipresence also reflects the renaissance of the Catskills area itself: around 100 miles north-northwest of New York City, famously home to hundreds of decimated hotels, the Catskills is making a comeback in its own right. It even featured in a New York Times hotly anticipated list of must-go destinations in 2015.

Tourism statistics furnished by the Sullivan County Tourism Association only showed a 1-2% increase in regional room occupancy and revenue between 2013 and 2014 (which is on par with New York State’s overall averages, even when factoring out tourist-magnet New York City). So what has seemingly happened overnight to spark such an instant interest in a region that time had apparently forgotten?

“While it may seem like an immediate success to an outsider, for me it’s been 15 years of trying” remarks Sims Foster, 38, who was raised in the town of Livingston Manor in northern Sullivan County.

Foster and his wife Kirsten currently own and operate the Arnold House, a stylish 10-room inn that opened less than a year ago, and are hosting the area’s first ice fishing derby next month.

“Many people have been working hard in the region for quite some time, but it’s not quite a tipping point we’re experiencing, it’s more that we’re finally reaching a critical mass of individuals choosing to be here, and everyone’s taken notice,” Foster adds. “We’ve reached a point of credibility.” And it’s taken many years for the Catskills to unfetter itself from the reputation of its previous avatar.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the area thrived as a summer paradise that teemed with endless opportunities to escape the Big Smoke and enjoy the country air. “There were over 2,000 hotel rooms within a three-mile radius of Livingston Manor,” states Foster.

Most of the accommodation catered to the America’s northeastern Jewish population in the form of grand, all-inclusive fortresses. Unsustainable purchasing practices married with the proliferation of air conditioning and airfare meant a rapid decline in the area’s popularity, and soon nothing but the husk remained.

The next few decades proved rather quiet, further silenced by the fact that the region wasn’t (and still isn’t) serviced by public transportation. Yet born out of the cinders of the mammoth resorts that seemed so out of touch with the community were small local businesses, like sustainable small farming cooperatives—the seedlings of a homespun Brooklynization trend that, when eventually championed by an army of millennials, would take over the entire world.

“Millennials don’t know much about the history of the Catskills,” states Randy Lewis, one of the founders of the Catskill Brewery, which also opened in Livingston Manor less than a year ago.

“This new generation is interested in renewing the healthy lifestyle, eating good local food, and getting out of the city. It’s a natural fit for them. In fact I see tons of millennials at the brewery on weekends, coming up from their apartments in Brooklyn.”

“The Brooklyn influence is definitely present,” adds Foster, “I see traces of the North Williamsburg and Dumbo aesthetic everywhere.” Even Foster’s inn has a palpable Brooklyn-in-the-Woods vibe with ironic splashes of Formica paired with earnest arrangements of mid-century modern furnishings, vintage vinyl, and taxidermic elk.

And the trending beeline between Brooklyn and the Catskills grows unhampered by the lack of transportation infrastructure. In fact, the absence of public transit that once proved an obstacle is now a boon to the region in the form of wildly inexpensive land prices.

“The cheap real estate in the area is really compelling,” says Foster, who acknowledges that it might just be the last swathe of ultra-affordable land within 100 miles of the Big Apple. “There’s space for a dream project and plenty of fertile ground to explore your passions.”

Foster, whose been purchasing additional parcels of land with the help of his realtor brother, doesn’t see any current movement in the price of real estate.

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However, Roberta Lockwood, the president of the Sullivan County Tourism Association, cites the major casino investment and the anti-fracking laws as the leading factors forecasting the growth of the local market. “People eager to establish a second home in the Catskills are again searching.”

“The long-debated rights to a casino has been a controversial topic for over 25 years,” states Foster, “and casinos are a controversial in general when weighing the net positive and net negative gains, but an outside investment of $650 million is undoubtedly a big factor in bolstering the Catskills’ credibility as well.”

For Foster and Lewis both, however, there’s one investment that’s tantamount to the county’s recent cash infusion: time.

“At the end of day it’s really not about the money, but about the energy people want to invest. When people see the local bakery, café and brewery they think ‘hey, there’s a foundation for me to build upon.’ I have friends in finance who could have a mansion in Bridgehampton but choose the Catskills instead” says Foster. “The area attracts those who have a desire to make an impact,” adds Lewis.

Robin Jones, 32, who currently resides in Brooklyn, is leaving her job in February to do just that—make her mark. After seven years working for a New York City-based NGO, she’s planning to open a bed and breakfast with her business partner and friend.

“I’m looking for a change of pace and a life with a bit more balance built in” she says. “I thought opening an inn was a novel concept in the area, and while I still think I’m ahead of the curve, I’ve seen a lot of places opening up in the last few months. I come from an economically depressed area of Missouri, and see a lot of similarities, but also a lot of opportunities in the Catskills,” she says.

“The Catskills often reminds people of where they are from, from before they moved to New York City,” says Foster, who draws parallels between the area and many of America’s other commercial centers that have felt the fragility of a capitalist boom-and-bust economy over the years.

“What’s happening now is exactly what happened after all the old tanneries closed well over a century ago,” adds Foster. “The tanneries took all the trees, and the barren region needed some time to regrow before it could become a summer-land”, referring to the 500-some hotels that catered to Jewish vacationers.

“Then those cruiseship-y hotels burned hot, could not adapt, and died. And we’ve been going through another period of regrowth ever since.”

“The Catskills is becoming a new brand,” explains Foster. “We’ve swapped gefilte fish with locally cured bacon.”