BY TRAV S.D. | To fans of American popular culture, the phrase “Tin Pan Alley” can mean many things. A state of mind. A style of music. But over a century ago, for a period of around 15 years (1893-1908), it happened to be the nickname of an actual, physical place. During those years, the section of W. 28th St. between Broadway and Sixth Ave. was a densely packed warren of song publishers — the hit factory that turned out the tunes America loved to hear.
On Sun., Oct. 22, that old identity was resurrected when the 29th Street Neighborhood Association presented a free public event called “Save Tin Pan Alley Day.” The three-hour afternoon celebration featured a speakers’ program, a musical concert, an exhibition of sheet music, and historian-led walking tours, all designed to advocate for the street’s designation as a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“The American popular music industry was created here at the turn of the century,” said George Calderaro, project head of the Save Tin Pan Alley Project Initiative (savetinpanalley.org). “We are here to gain support for landmark designation of Tin Pan Alley as an historic district based on cultural merit, which is acknowledged globally by everyone except the NYC Landmarks Commission,” Calderaro said. “Despite repeated requests and detailed reports from the 29th Street Neighborhood Association, the Landmarks Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan — who came from the Board of Standards and Appeals where she approved 93 percent of developer proposals — has refused to calendar a hearing for expansion of the Madison Square North Historic District or even share these proposals with her fellow commissioners. These proposals have the support of all elected officials, the community board and 30,000 people who have signed petitions.”
According to the Neighborhood Association, most of the buildings on the street were purchased in a single parcel by a major real estate developer in 2013, and remain in danger of being torn down for more profitable purposes, such as a hotel or condominiums, now that the area has been transformed into the fashionable “NoMad” (or “North of Madison”) district. At present, the strip of buildings, most of which were built between the 1850s and the turn of the last century, house storefronts hawking wares like costume jewelry and perfume at the street level, with apartments and offices on upper stories.
But back in the day, according to scholar David Freeland (author of “Automats, Taxi Dancers and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure”), the tenants were mostly music publishers. “The windows would be open because there was no air conditioning then,” Freeland noted. “The street was abuzz with activity, a cacophony of clanging pianos — or as one imaginative character put it, some think it was a journalist named Monroe Rosenfeld, tin pans, hence the name.”
According to the event organizers, and they have the documentation, the correct location of Tin Pan Alley is 28th St. between Broadway and Sixth Ave. — not 29th St., nor between Fifth and Sixth Aves. as some sources would have it. To add the muddle, there is a plaque on 29th St. “No one is sure why they put it there,” Freeland said. It was 28th Street that was home to seminal show business entrepreneurs like M. Witmark & Sons, the Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company, the Paul Dresser Publishing Company, and Leo E. Berliner & Company. In addition to music publishers, the strip was also the location of other related concerns, such as theatrical producer Gustave Frohman’s Dramatic Exchange, the offices of the New York Clipper (New York’s premier entertainment industry newspaper, which was later absorbed into Variety), the William Morris Agency, and an early Thomas Edison silent movie studio. At one end of the street was the 5th Avenue Theatre; at the other end was the entrance to the Sixth Avenue Elevated (IRT line). Broadway producers and famous vaudeville singers could not walk through the neighborhood without being besieged by pesky “song pluggers” trying to create interest in the latest tunes.
The organizers of the celebration made it easy to picture how the neighborhood used to be. Pergola restaurant (36 W. 28th St., btw. Broadway & Sixth Ave.; pergolanewyork.com) was the event’s epicenter, its walls graced with a temporary exhibition called “Black and Jewish Musicians of Tin Pan Alley” curated by Columbia University Community Scholar John Reddick, from his own collection. On view were sheets for well-known classics like Albert von Tilzer’s 1908 “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and his brother Harry’s 1904 “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” alongside now-forgotten tunes like Leo Berliner’s 1899 “Mississippi Side Step.” A Harlem-based architect, Reddick said his interest in the built environment drew him into an appreciation of the music that came out of those buildings.
Mario Messina, president of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association, led off the program of speakers (titled “Why We Fight”) followed by Freeland, who stressed the necessity of experiencing Tin Pan Alley as an “extant neighborhood” as opposed to strictly learning about it from a distance in a museum. He mentioned that the Landmarks Preservation Commission tends to give the most weight to architectural merit in making its determinations, but in his view, “The fact that we can see that this great movement of American popular culture came from these relatively humble buildings is important in and of itself. Cultural movements often start with the masses. That’s important to understand.”
Calderaro noted that the Neighborhood Association has been attempting to achieve landmark status for 10 years, and warned, “Demolition scaffolding went up this week around the beloved and magnificent 112-year-old Kaskel building on Fifth and 32nd to make way for a 40-story luxury tower.” The roster of speakers was rounded out by remarks by educator and instructor Lesley Doyel, former president of Save Chelsea (savechelseany.org) and creator of the Teaching Tin Pan Alley school curriculum, who spoke of her efforts to make New York City school kids aware of this important history.
There followed a free musical concert, which made maximum use of a piano loaned (and transported to the event) by Steinway & Sons. On the bill were singers Aubrey Barnes, Stacey Haughton, Betsy Hirsch, Deborah Karpel and Robert Lamont, all of whom drew from the deep well of Tin Pan Alley standards for their sets, including well-known classics like Lawlor and Blake’s 1894 “The Sidewalks of New York,” especially appropriate, given the setting.
Simultaneously, three historical walking tours were given. Freeland’s tied Tin Pan Alley to its seedy surroundings in the Tenderloin, which was the city’s vice district at the time. (In ensuing decades, the vice district, the theatrical district, and the music publishing industry would all move in part up to Times Square). Miriam Berman, author of the book “Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks,” called her presentation “Tin Pan Alley in Context.” Laurence Frommer and Cher Carden gave a tour entitled “African-American Composers and Performers of Tin Pan Alley.”
For more information on Tin Pan Alley and the landmarking effort, visit savetinpanalley.org.