A plaque on 28th Street in Chelsea memorializes the golden age of American songwriting at the turn of the 20th century, a time when Tin Pan Alley published and sold some 2 billion copies of sheet music around the world. Soon, the block could have landmark status. Photo: 29th Street Neighborhood Assn.
Singers, pianists, composers, lyricists, publishers and “song pluggers” once flocked to Tin Pan Alley on West 28th Street. Now, their musical legacy will endure forever
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN
“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was published on the block. So was “Give My Regards to Broadway.” It was where “Sweet Adeline” was immortalized. And “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” came to life.
West 28th Street on both sides of Broadway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was once the world’s best known musical block — and it peddled popular songs to America just like the Fulton Fish Market sold fish.
Famed as Tin Pan Alley, it kicked off the golden age of songwriting. And it flung open the doors to such African-American greats as W.C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” and Scott Joplin, who published his mega-hit, “Maple Leaf Rag,” on the block in 1899.
Now, after a campaign by preservationists that started a dozen years ago, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is poised to give protected landmark status to a strip that boasted the nation’s largest concentration of sheet music publishers at the turn of the 20th century.
The LPC — after finding that the area has cultural, musical, historical and architectural merit — voted on March 12 to “calendar” a five-building swath of the block, a key step toward protecting those exteriors from any future demolition and development.
Once the agency calendars a structure, it is usually on a fast-track for a formal landmark designation. The process involves a public hearing on the quintet of buildings, between 47 West 28th St. and 55 West 28th St., followed by final review, a public meeting and a binding vote typically resulting in designation.
When that happens later this year, the Italianate row houses, all built between 1854 and 1857, will stand in perpetuity as the “powerhouse of pop hits” that incubated such one-time classics as “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” and “In the Good Old Summertime.”
It will also enshrine their role in ushering inclusivity into the music industry, providing work for minorities and immigrants — and tearing down barriers of segregation in what was then the theater district, according to an LPC research report:
“In the heart of the Tenderloin, Tin Pan Alley gave unprecedented opportunities to songwriters of color and of Eastern European Jewish descent,” agency researchers found.
“The first African-American owned and operated music publishing businesses in the U.S. had offices on this block, and some of their songwriters deliberately tried to rework stereotypes which were popular in music of the time because of the influence of minstrel shows and American vaudeville,” they wrote.Seeking “stage-worthy” numbers
It is difficult to overstate the global cachet associated with West 28th Street — even though its heyday in the music business lasted a mere 20 years, from 1893, when the first music publisher, M. Witmark & Sons, put down stakes, to 1913, when the last remaining purveyor of sheet music relocated to the Times Square area.
“There’s an enormous amount of international recognition for Tin Pan Alley,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a coalition of community groups that advocates for landmark districts. “We would sometimes get calls from Australia in which people would ask us, ‘What’s going on with Tin Pan Alley?’”
The block boomed in an era before play-back machines and recordings and record players, said Bankoff, whose group has been pressing for the landmarking of multiple buildings on the block, some of which were later razed, since 2007.
“People would go to concerts and music halls and bars and saloons, and they’d hear all the new songs, which had been written down on music sheets and promoted by song pluggers,” he added. “If they liked what they heard and wanted to replicate it, they would buy sheet music from Tin Pan Alley and play it on the home piano.”
The scene was rhythmic and rollicking, the block teeming with well-known singers and pianists and vaudevillians and the occasional opera diva, all marketing songs to an eager buying public:
All-powerful music industry publishers — there were 38 of them at the peak in 1907 — held court. So-called tune-smiths, meaning lyricists and composers, would peddle their works.
Choreographers and orchestrators would seek out the most “stage-worthy” numbers. Paid pluggers, or “boomers,” would artificially, and aggressively, inflate a song’s catchiness and popularity.
And through it all there was the music. You’d catch a few bars of “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven,” a tear-jerker about a lost mother, or “Hello! Ma Baby (Hello, Ma Ragtime Gal),” about an early telephone courtship, or “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the first breakout hit by an unknown Russian-Jewish immigrant songwriter named Irving Berlin.
“This is where modern American music was born,” said Mario G. Messina, president and co-founder of the 29th Street Neighborhood Assn., an advocacy group that has fought to landmark the block ever since it was established in 2012.
“This is the cradle of the best songs that came out of America to the delight of the world,” he added.
Sheet music sales peaked at around 2 billion copies in 1910, according to LPC research.
But the growing popularity and affordability of record players and long-playing recordings in most American households ultimately led to a huge shift in the in-home music culture. And as domestic piano-playing declined, Tin Pan Alley withered, and most of its surviving businesses followed the theater and entertainment district up to Times Square.
So where did that evocative name come from anyway? According to Messina, it was birthed by the inescapable banging and rattling and pounding and jangling of the ivories:
“You would hear piano music all up and down the street, and it would sound like this: ‘Tin, tin, tin, pan, pan, pan!” he said.