HANDS ON HISTORY AND TEACHING TIN PAN ALLEY
by Lesley Doyel
The teacher’s manual called Teaching Tin Pan Alley: Saving and Celebrating a Side Street of NewYork, has evolved from the P.S. 11 after-school class called Hands On History: Preserving the Past in the Present, an Education Initiative of the Victorian Society New York.
In this weekly after-school class, instructor Lesley Doyel provides an up close and personal exploration of local Chelsea history, and that of surrounding neighborhoods. The class also investigates various ways of preserving the past through designation of both individual buildings and/or historic districts by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, or through the repurposing of existing structures via adaptive reuse.
Hands On History Student visiting West 28th Street with historic Tin Pan Alley buildings in the background.
This fall, Hands On History (HOH) students are learning about West 28th Street - the birthplace of the popular music industry in the late 19th and early 20th century. Songs like The Side Walks of New York, The Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin, and Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, still known and enjoyed today. Since P.S. 11 is on West 21st Street, it was possible to visit the actual site, and to look for evidence of the past. Amazingly, this includes a number of Tin Pan Alley’s original buildings, including Number 40, where Take Me Out to the Ball Game was penned in 1908.
On a tour of the site with Laurence Frommer, students also learned that the area directly adjacent to West 28th Street was the bustling New York theater district in those days.
In class, HOH students learned that before radio and record players, sheet music was the way in which many songs became well known. Sheet music made it possible for these songs to be played on pianos and sung in homes throughout America. Hands On History students also experienced first-hand, the clatter and noise created by banging on an actual tin pans – simulating the cacophony made by many pianos playing different songs all at the same time - hence the moniker, Tin Pan Alley.
In addition to other projects included in Teaching Tin Pan Alley, prior to the LPC's ultimate granting of landmark status to Tin Pan Alley, Hands On History, as a class, wrote a letter urging the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to preserve the historic buildings on West 28th Street, which they now know to be a very special side street of New York.