17 October 2008

New York Times Gets Around to Tin Pan Alley Story

More than a week after the Tin Pan Alley sale story broke here, the New York Times has finally addressed the issue, both in City Room blog and in the City Section. Only oblique mention of Lost City breaking the story in the former, none at all in the latter. Oh well. As long as it helps the cause. Here's the City Section piece (written by some guy—sorry, I really don't have time to mention his name):

STAND for a minute on West 28th Street, east of Avenue of the Americas, and listen. The sounds on the street are of hawkers selling bootleg movies and knockoff perfumes, and trucks backing up and beeping steadily — the usual urban noise of South Midtown.

Near the middle of the block on Wednesday afternoon, sitting on a stoop in the shade of new scaffolding, a Korean man who owns a second-floor cellphone store recalled the street’s recent history. A decade ago, he said, it was home to a row of florists. A luxury apartment tower went up on the corner around that time, the delivery trucks started getting more parking tickets, and most of the florists moved away.

The man was sitting in front of No. 49, one of the buildings that once helped the block earn its reputation for a different kind of commerce, and a different kind of clangor. It was there, in 1893, that the music publisher M. Witmark & Sons set up shop, and soon, the ringing, tinkling sound of an army of pianos was echoing from windows all along the strip as other music companies opened. The sound, legend holds, earned the stretch of West 28th Street between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas the nickname Tin Pan Alley.

That was before the cellphone vendor’s time. “Never heard of it,” he said.

But Tin Pan Alley’s golden age, in which the careers of songwriting titans like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin began, has been back in the news this month, with the revelation that five of its buildings — 49 West 28th and four adjacent — are up for sale, presumably to a developer who will tear them down and build a tower.

Last week, as tenants and preservationists geared up for a fight, it was still possible to stand back, look up at the crumbling facades and picture their heyday, a time, historians remind us, when the march of commerce was as insistent as it is today.

“It was a wild place, because all of the publishers’ representatives used to hang out on the sidewalks to try to rope in the performers to hear the latest songs,” said David Freeland, the author of a forthcoming book titled “Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville,” about New York’s lost cultural places.

The environment of the gambling houses and brothels in a larger district that was known as the Tenderloin was aggressive, Mr. Freeland said, a place for go-getters. With all the publishers side by side, he added, “they probably had a relationship that bordered on the malevolent, because it was such a competitive business, and everyone was trying to get an edge. It was pretty intense.”

What emerged, in the height of industrialization at the beginning of the 20th century, was an environment in which songwriting was industrialized, too: Songs were written for categories — sentimental ballads, patriotic songs, comedic ones — and marketed, then shipped on sheet music to department stores. That, Mr. Freeland said, was a product of hardscrabble 28th Street — not that the listeners could tell.

The songs the street produced, and those later produced by writers who got their start there, live on today, on the radio, at weddings and — like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” — in the seventh-inning stretch.

“The melodies are beautiful and the lyrics are literate and passionate and the rhymes are pure,” Jonathan Schwartz, the radio host and music historian, said of the songs that the street’s brightest lights would go on to produce. “It’s just spellbinding, it’s absolutely beautiful, and nothing like it has followed.”

The roots are there, improbably, on 28th Street. “Look at the second-story windows,” Mr. Freeland said. “You can see where songwriters toiled, knocking out these songs and hoping for a hit.”

UPDATE: OK, I've calmed down. Jake Mooney wrote the above article. What can I say? All writers, even bloggers, crave credit. Plus, I had a really bad day. But Tin Pan Alley's the thing here. The fight to save it goes on.


Francis Morrone said...

I hope the preservationist concern about 28th Street will yield some solid research. I've been frustrated by not knowing what was and was not produced there. Many of the Tin Pan Alley songs noted in the NY Post piece (which does mention LC) were most definitely NOT written on 28th Street. For example, by the time Remick published a song by Gershwin, the firm had left 28th for 46th Street. Great work, by the way, in calling attention to this imperiled block.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Yes, I know what you mean, but the argument for preservation should be that specific songs were written there or specific people worked there, but that Tin Pan Alley in general was a phenomenon that should be honored, remembered and preserved in the forms of these buildings that played a pivotal role.