13 February 2008

Where Have You Gone, George Gershwin?

The above nondescript line of storefronts is all that's left of Tin Pan Alley, the songwriting mecca of the early 20th century which was concentrated on W. 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. They tell me there's a plaque on the block somewhere commemorating its history, but I can't find it. Otherwise, there's no indication of the mind-bending amount of cultural history that was made on this small stretch of street.

Given the number of songs rattling around in our collective memory that were hatched here and the great musical careers that were born on this strip of street, it's neglect by the City is one of monumental proportions. "After the Ball," "Sidewalks of New York," "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "Hello My Baby," "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage," "Bill Bailey, Won't You Come Home," "Down By the Old Mill Stream," "Give Me Regards to Broadway," "K-K-K-Katy," "The Darktown Strutter's Ball," "In the Good Old Summertime," "Peg o' My Heart" and hundreds more—all written here. I don't know about you—and I don't know what it says about me—by I know a good chunk of all those songs by heart.

That the ramshackle assortment of buildings have survived at all is some sort of miracle, I guess. It's easy to look at these structures, with their stairs leading up to windowed, second-story storefronts, and imagine Irving Berlin trotting up a flight to try and sell another ditty. The stairway to the right of the blue awning above was once Shapiro, Bernstein & Company, a leading music publisher, and later on the Jerome Remick Music Co., another biggie. Remick's main claim to fame was that teenage George Gershwin worked there as a song plugger—that is, he played songs for potential buyers.
Gershwin met Irving Caesar here. Together they wrote "Swanee," Gershwin's first hit and the man's career was made.

At 49, below, was M. Witmark & Songs, which was responsible for hundreds of hit songs. Later is was Paul Dresser Publishing Co. Across the street was Leo Fiest ("You can't go wrong with a Fiest song.") Ought to be a small City museum on this block somewhere.


J$ said...

it's very unusual in nyc to see the stairs from the street to the recessed vestibule of the 2nd story business.

there's a few like this in chinatown and clinton st but otherwise i can recall almost none others.

nickyjett said...

"Ought to be a small City museum on this block somewhere."

Seriously - you just created one on this "block" in cyberspace. Wow again thank you. I never knew any of this history. You did realize that some entrepreneur can create a NYC walking tour from your blog!

stephen said...

Marvelous: on my next visit to New York, I'll be clutching a printout of your blog. Better than any guide book... it conveys an intimate history of people and places and their echoes.

Adrienne said...

There is a plaque - its on the corner on the sidewalk no larger than a foot maybe and it's usually covered by one of the hotdog vendors. I only saw it by luck once when they were leaving.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Nickyjett: I wish some entrepreneur gave me some money and I'd do the walking tour myself.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Thanks, Stephen.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I'll look for that plaque when I'm next in the nabe. But it ain't enough, Adrienne, it ain't enough!

Marco said...

Sorta like what happened to New Orleans. This country had no reverence of spirit of place.

Anonymous said...

I live on the block and have always wondered about that particular row of buildings. From older photos I've found of Tin Pan Alley they most resemble the raised split level store front. I recommend watching the documentary "Soundtrack of the Century" that has some great clips of the street in its heyday. Also, the original producers star, Zero Mostel, owned the red brick building across the street from the ones you photographed. After he died his widow sold it. The official tin pan alley plaque is located between broadway and fifth on the south side of the street.

Anonymous said...

As another tenant of the neighborhood
#45 west 28th street is the building
that George Gershwin worked in at
Jerome Remick Music co in 1915.
These buildings are the history of
Pop Music and should be saved in
addition Black"Ragtime Jazz" started
being published there.Years ago in
August a Tin Pan alley society of
music would come by and actually sing
all the songs written in this group
of buildings.#47 w.28th street is where the show business mag Variety
had it's roots .Many pictures are available of these show business
buildings in history books.
Landmark commissions do your job
and save these buildings from destruction.

Anonymous said...

There are some storefronts like this on Montague Street between Henry and Clinton in Brooklyn Heights.

timmmyk said...

Please view this video to see the plaque denoting Tin Pan Alley on You Tube (about 55 seconds into the video) as well as most of the rest of the surrounding area:

Unknown said...

The plaque is on 28th between BROADWAY AND FIFTH.
South side of the street about 1/3 of the way down going West to East.
It's on the sidewalk.
Very very cool!

Anonymous said...

This is a terrific post. Thanks so much for the insight!

Paul Dresser said...

I would like to buy the buildings in Tin Pan Alley for a song. However, this song is very special to me, and the buildings are getting kind of old. However, New York City, I will trade You the rights to the song..."Tin Pan Alley," for the five remaining buildings in Tin Pan Alley. http://eve-n-tide.com/ I am Paul Dresser, and I'm good for what I say.

Anonymous said...

First Tin Pan Alley vanished, replaced by the 'Flower District', which is slowly being replace by and with high-rise hotels and apartment buildings, which are choking out what's left of the once thriving flower shops on 28th St. between Broadway and 7th Avenue. Sad that two NYC institudions, music and flowers have been surplanted by the modern technological age and the need for more hotels and housing spaces. Oh, well.