We have a detailed history of Tin Pan Alley thanks to invaluable information from the Historic Districts Council in their “Brief-ish History of Tin Pan Alley” written in 2008, and Michael Minn in his piece “Tin Pan Alley”, part of his “New York City” photography collection project. As both accounts cover both overlapping and different information, we present them both below. Many thanks to them both for their thorough and dogged research and insightful presentation.
MEETING WITH THE LPC
The 29 Street Neighborhood Association meets with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to discuss Tin Pan Alley’s historic and cultural background.
Tin Pan Alley, the name given to a humble stretch of West 28th Street where American popular music was born, could finally become a New York City landmark. On Tuesday, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission officially started the process of reviewing five buildings on the Manhattan street to determine whether their exteriors should be protected from future development. “I’m elated!” said George Calderaro, a preservationist and member of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association, who has lobbied for years to get Tin Pan Alley landmarked. “You see all the development going on there. It would be a tragedy to have it replaced by another hotel.”
Some of the Italianite-style rowhouses are approximately 165 years old. Photo: Todd Maisel
During its heyday between 1893 and 1910, people walking on West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue could hear a multitude of pianos and lots of singing as they passed through the center of the sheet music publishing industry. That cacophony of piano keys is what gave the area its moniker “Tin Pan Alley,” according to Kate Lemos McHale, director of research for the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “The name went on to really represent the music industry through the 20th century the way Hollywood represents the film industry,” said McHale. Tin Pan Alley is where publishers had composers and musicians “plug” their tunes in hopes they would be used in the nearby concert halls, theaters and other venues. “That’s when the commercialization of music was going on,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which has also worked for years to get Tin Pan Alley on LPC’s calendar. “While you had radio, you didn’t have recordings. If you heard something on the radio and wanted to replicate it, you’d need a piano and sheet music.” Bankoff said many classic songs like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” were written in Tin Pan Alley, which has also been associated with musical greats including Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan and Scott Joplin. Cohan is the force behind timeless hits including “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” Berlin, probably best known for writing “God Bless America” and “White Christmas,” also penned other classics including the jaunty “Putting on the Ritz.” Tin Pan Alley is also important for the opportunities it gave African-American and Jewish songwriters, McHale said. The block housed the first African-American owned and operated music publishing business in the country.
“Some of their songwriters deliberately tried to rework stereotypes which were popular in music of the time because of the influence of minstrel shows and American vaudeville,” the LPC said in its presentation regarding the site. While historians have focused on the cultural significance of Tin Pan Alley, they also believe the approximately 165-year-old Italianate-style row houses are worth saving for architectural reasons.
The proposal for landmarking includes 47 W. 28th St., 49 W. 28th St., 51 W. 28th St., 53 W. 28th St. and 55 W. 28th St. All were built between 1854 and 1857. Their exteriors would be landmarked, not their interiors, which have changed over time as they were used for a variety of residential and commercial purposes. All five buildings are currently owned by real estate developer Yair Levy. In 2011, a judgment for the state Attorney General’s office permanently banned Levy from selling apartments in New York for defrauding purchasers and tenants of a Battery Park City condominium. Records show each of the buildings is owned by an LLC with an address that is shared by YL Management LLC, where Levy is listed as president. Levy could not be reached for comment. LPC officials said they have been in touch with Levy, who will have a chance to weigh in on the landmarking proposal in the coming weeks.
“We’ve been talking with him,” McHale said. “We are hopeful for his support.”