Singing praises of Tin Pan Alley

BY COREY JOHNSON AND SARAH CARROLL | Preservation has the power to revitalize communities, support economic development, drive investment into existing buildings and bring pride of place across all five boroughs.

Architectural icons such as the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal and the Brooklyn Bridge are essential to the character of New York City. Historic districts, such as Greenwich Village and Crown Heights, contain blocks of 19th-century residential architecture that are a draw to residents and visitors alike.

Buildings on Tin Pan Alley in 1910.

While New Yorkers recognize the need to protect architecturally significant places, the importance of protecting places with cultural and historical significance is just as vital.

Given the divisiveness across the country, with attacks on the social liberties of immigrants, people of color, women and the L.G.B.T. community, now more than ever, it is important for the city to recognize and tell the stories of all the New Yorkers that shaped the city’s history and built environment. These include the stories of immigration and migration, social justice and civil rights, and the places of arts and culture.

On March 12, the Landmarks Preservation Commission proposed five buildings on W. 28th St. for designation that represent one of the most important and most diverse contributions to popular culture. These buildings, located in a block known as Tin Pan Alley, were home to the most significant concentration of sheet-music publishers in New York City.

While on this block — so named to describe the audible racket of piano music that made 28th St. sound “like a tin pan alley” — these firms revolutionized the music-publishing industry’s practices for the creation, promotion and consumption of popular music as we know it today.

The same buildings, 43-47 W. 28th St., 100 years later.

The history that’s often overlooked is that the sheet-music industry gave unprecedented opportunities to African-American and Jewish composers as mainstream songwriters and music publishers. The first black-owned and black-operated music publishing businesses in the United States had offices on this block; some of these songwriters deliberately tried to rework stereotypes that were popular in music of the time because of the influence of minstrel shows and American vaudeville.

Culture is always part of every place and building, and it is essential that the Commission continue to identify and preserve the most significant cultural, as well as architectural, buildings and sites.

A historic plaque commemorating Tin Pan Alley.

Preservation of places of cultural and historic significance can be difficult because the L.P.C. is a regulatory agency. Designation means regulating the architectural details of a building or site to retain the physical fabric that ties the existing building to its historical significance. But the L.P.C., with the support of the City Council, is committed to this important work. We will continue to prioritize this work because we believe that designation of places that reflect the city’s diversity will continue to make New York City distinctive and help connect us to the past.

Johnson is speaker of the New York City Council and represents Council District 3, home to Tin Pan Alley. Carroll is chairperson of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

12 Responses to Singing praises of Tin Pan Alley

  1. New York is in a housing crisis, and the planet is in a climate crisis. Yet the authors want to dedicate this vital square footage–near mass transit and in the heart of Manhattan–to preserving some undistinguished and shabby buildings? We should be building huge amounts of new housing here; instead, we're pushing growth out of the city.

    Historic preservation only matters if the property in question is above sea level; if we want New York to be around 500 years from now, we need to cut carbon emissions now, and one of the best ways to do so is to let people live near mass transit in dense apartment buildings.

    • Landmarking five small buildings integral to the cultural history of African Americans does not place constraints on the real estate market. But even this small token of enlightened urbanism is unacceptable to YIMBYs. Everything must be glittering, new and glass. Everything erased. The planning failures of the 1950s and 1960s mean nothing to them. It is revealing that the YIMBY crowd looks upon our black history and sees only "undistinguished and shabby" buildings. Culture and history are invisible to them, they are incapable of appreciating anything that does not translate into dollars per square foot. Their own white privilege and ignorance of history blinds them to their racism.

    • Could you be any more idiotic? How much would the City need to build until you're satisfied? How much building would need to be done before everyone who wanted to live here was living here? It's just not possible. Manhattan is an island. We can't even build tall enough to provide housing for everyone. Stop trying! It's a Sisyphean waste. Growth should be pushed out of Manhattan. There are plenty of places where housing can happen. There is no need to do it on top of our history and civic education. If you really care about emissions, you'd be opposed to destroying buildings, creating tons of pollution debris, and fabricating new material that creates far more carbon. Sir, you have it all backwards. Saving Our History is saving your environment.

  2. Great! We are all glad (except for the representative of the YIMBY mini-lobby noted above).
    So let's start to see more designations in areas where developers are obsessed with unused FAR and where they are quietly telling the LPC to back down so they can tear it all down. More such decisions as this one would surely signal that the LPC is not taken over by real estate interests. A tiny one-off like Tin Pan Alley is really just a start, and is not enough to persuade many of us that Corey Johnson is actually a preservationist (although we'd be happy to see more evidence that he is going in that direction) or that there is actually a change of spirit at De Blasio's LPC. The problem is that Tin Pan Alley is far from the only meritorious place in need of designation, or that ought to have been designated. Too many meritorious cases are still rejected by the LPC (and yes, we are sure we know what merit is as well as any LPC staffer). So we will watch and hope for more such decisions before believing that anything is different at the LPC or at the Speaker's office.

  3. Katherine O'Sullivan

    Perserve Tin Pan Ally. What of New York's own "Big Ben" – the clock atop 346 Broadway? A rolex watch with a swatch interior does not a rolex make. Preserving the exterior without its mechanical interior is not really preserving that wonderful clock.

    • The Clocktower example you cite is the perfect symbol of a broader problem at LPC that affects the entire city. Buildings in historic districts are now spoken of as having "landmarked facades." The Commission protects only the street fronts of buildings in these districts, and underlying land values are so high that developers will leave money on the table if they don't demolish everything else and build a larger, modern luxury building behind a false front — a "potemkin-like sop to the landmarks law" as the New York Times recently called facadism. What good is it to designate Tin Pan Alley and then have only its veneer preserved? It'll be a vintage watch with a quartz movement like 346 Broadway. LPC needs to exercise its purview over the entire shell of buildings in historic districts rather than letting the street facades screen bigger replacement buildings. This will at least encourage the interior preservation that it can't demand. It's great that Corey Johnson supports designation of Tin Pan Alley. It would be even greater if he presented a vision for an improved LPC and made it part of a run for mayor!

      • Couldn't agree more. I wonder if London would turn Big Ben into a penthouse for some foreign national with suitcases full of cash. That the LPC was involved in the destruction of one of the most important interior landmarks in the city is a disgrace. While I grant that this happened under another Chair, Ms. Srinivasan. Is the Statue of Liberty next?? Imagine looking out the crown of the great lady from your bedroom! A private island to boot. How much cash would that bring?
        Neither the City Council or the LPC are doing a adequate job to preserve the most important historic monuments in NY. It is often through the spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees by private citizens and the communities and preservation groups that a modicum of historic places are preserved. It is through the relentless work of preservation groups that some of New York's past remains. So I'm not convinced of Corey Johnson's sincerity or LPC's commitment to its "mandate". The Mayor who is a great friend to the real estate industry with no knowledge or interest in preservation has tremendous sway over both the LPC and the BSA. Many great cities fall. Because of the outsized influence of the real estate industry, this one's teetering on the edge.

  4. I have never been more disappointed in the LPC. They are a waste of tax dollars, and can only be getting their instructions from the top, the mayor. De Blasio has been the worst mayor in this City's history. Progressive is the exact opposite of what he is. Can't wait until he's out of office. ugh.

  5. What about the Bowery?

  6. I’d like to echo Guest 2:54. This op-ed is all fine and good but how can the leader of the LPC say: “Culture is always part of every place and building, and it is essential that the Commission continue to identify and preserve the most significant cultural, as well as architectural, buildings and sites” and then reject the Bowery ie NYC’s Oldest Thoroughfare ? I’ll wait.

  7. Some facts:

    The five Tin Pan Alley buildings proposed for landmark designation, like many buildings in NYC designated historic districts, are full of affordable rent-regulated apartments which would be lost if they weren't protected.

    West 28th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue currently has about FIFTEEN hotels. Tin Pan Alley is the cradle of American popular culture in NYC, the nation and the world. It should not be lost for another crappy chain hotel which even YIMBY detests.

    Affordable housing is not being forsaken when our built heritage is protected. Profiteering developers are only interested in luxury apartments and hotel rooms, which benefit no one while taxing our infrastructure. That's what's actually going up place of landmark-worthy buildings in this and many neighborhoods.

  8. Carol Puttre-Czyz

    "pushing growth out of the city"? Are you blind? There's construction on almost every Manhattan block. And what about Hudson Yards – Playground for the Rich most of whom are wealthy foreign nationals. We could have built a lot of affordable housing there. And let's close any available green space (such as the Elizabeth Street Garden) when there are other appropriate spaces for housing. And let's not forget the row of Federal houses that were torn down to accommodate a Moxy Hotel on East 11th Street. Let's face it REBNY and developers rule the roost in NYC.

    The news about Tin Pan Alley is great but we also have to protect the Bowery. The Bowery which is NYC's oldest street has made remarkable contributions to American history and culture. Sarah Carroll and Cory Booker – do the right thing.

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