A Catskill Catalog: May 27, 2009
I have been thinking a lot about culture lately. Not culture like opera and poetry and art museums – the high culture that we think of when we use the word to describe refined taste, as in “Jacqueline Onassis was a cultured woman.”
No, I’ve been thinking about culture in the way sociologists use the word: the way of life of a people. Maybe, what got me thinking about culture was the column I wrote a couple weeks ago about quilting. After all, the patchwork quilt has been, for the past 30 years or so, the operative metaphor for America’s cultural mosaic. (Another metaphor!)
When I was in school, America was described by my social studies teachers as a melting pot. Immigrants came to this country immersed in the culture of the old world, the culture of southern Italy, or the Yiddish-speaking Pale, or Ireland, or China, or any one of a hundred other regions. Soon, they were melded into Americans in the melting pot of America, dripping-off their old-world ways to emerge “culturally American,”
The turmoil of the 1960s destroyed that metaphor. The melting pot failed as a symbol because it failed to recognize that people became Americans while holding on to their own heritage. The Civil Rights movement morphed into Black Power and Black Pride. Cultural identity became important. We needed a new symbol for the variety of American life, the diversity of American communities.
The patchwork quilt was perfect. Quilting is a quintessentially American art form. The quilt itself is a single, unified thing, a unity that could stand for our national unity. But the patches! Each diverse and different piece of fabric that makes a patchwork quilt has its own identity, just as each cultural community in America maintains its own identity. The symbol works.
Here in the Catskills, the patchwork quilt of American communities and cultures is alive and celebrated. The Borscht Belt of Sullivan County, while not as vibrant as it once was, continues to be a center of American Jewish culture. East Durham, in Greene County, known locally as Little Ireland, boasts the Michael J. Quill Irish Culture and Sports Center. The German-American Club of the Northern Catskills meets monthly in Arkville and sponsors an annual Oktoberfest.
Sometimes cultures and communities that were once unrecognized and uncelebrated emerge with a new sense of pride and confidence. A new documentary video celebrates the Catskills’ Mexican-American community, a community that stepped out recently to sponsor its own Cinco de Mayo festival.
A vibrant Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Community makes our mountains a more interesting place to live. Diversity is good.
Yet, with all this cultural diversity and recognition, it is ironic, and sad, that one American culture seems often invisible, even on its home turf. That is the Mountain Culture that is indigenous to the Catskills. It is time we paid attention.
When I came to the Catskills, 38 years ago, I was part of a substantial migration of young people, who, in the midst of the cultural upheaval of the ’60s and early ’70s, were looking for a new way of life in the mountains, a way of life that would be more authentic and rooted and genuine than - it seemed to us - the empty and phony suburban ethos from which we fled. We found that way of life, that culture, here, among rural people, mountain people whose sense of place and family and community seemed more real to us than the materialism and consumerism that seemed to mar urbane life.
Recently, The New York Post listed Andes as number 38 in its series of 100 destinations within six hours of New York City. The Post describes Andes as “funky” and “shabby chic.” It says “gentrification has begun making inroads here” and notes that “there’s a strikingly cosmopolitan air to some of the businesses here.”
Now, I love the little shops and galleries that have opened in the last few years in Andes and many of our other mountain towns. Our area needs the economic development that new businesses represent. And new residents, both full and part-time, enrich our communities. But, I fear that “gentrification” submerges Mountain Culture, makes marginal the very way of life that makes the Catskills special, authentic, genuine, and real.
After all, gentrification means “to renovate and improve (especially a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class tastes; to make more refined or dignified” (Oxford Dictionary).
The Mountain Culture that was here before we got here has all the dignity that it needs. That Mountain Culture requires no further refinement, and, certainly, won’t be improved by conformity to middle-class taste. Whenever we may have arrived in the mountains, we came, not just for the pristine natural surroundings, but also for a little more sanity than the fast-paced, rat-race metropolitan world allows.
That sanity is right here, an integral part of Mountain Culture. It is the hallmark of a people who feel a sense of place, who live connected to the land, who value community and family above ideas and things, who live in the present guided by a living past, who combine faith and work and honesty and openness into a way of life with feet firmly planted on the ground, this ground.
All we have to do is look, listen, recognize, and respect.