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Tin Pan Alley’s possible landmark designation debated at heated LPC hearing

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Five buildings on West 28th Street are being considered for landmark status


On Tuesday, nearly 30 people testified at a packed Landmarks Preservation Commission public hearing over the designation of the five buildings on West 28th Street that comprise Tin Pan Alley, known as popular music’s birthplace.

Advocates and the building’s owner presented their arguments for and against the five buildings becoming New York City landmarks. The buildings are part of a row of Italianite houses built in 1852, which housed music publishers in the late 19th and early 20th century. The term “Tin Pan Alley”, according to the LPC, was coined in 1903 to describe the racket of piano music that could be heard on the block.

Even though all present agreed on Tin Pan Alley’s musical and historical legacy, some testimony throughout the day also focused on what some historians—and the building’s landlords—said was a history of bigotry in songs published during the Alley’s heyday.

“[Tin Pan Alley’s] contribution was making bigotry socially acceptable, like having these lyrics brought into the living rooms around the country and justifying the stereotypes of blacks as less than; and I would ask you to please, take a look at the pictures of the covers,” Ken Fisher, a representative of building owner Yair Levy (who is no stranger to controversy; he was once called a “predator” by former New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman), said, showing the copies of the album covers of the time.

Andrew Alpern, architectural historian, said that the designation of the Alley as a landmark would glorify a “period of the music industry’s history propelled by its publication of vile songs that created and perpetuated the ugliest stereotypes.”

“At a time when the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers have ceased to play Kate Smith’s recording of God Bless America, because she sang minstrel songs as well, does this commission want to be known for recognizing the publishers of racist songs so much worse than those she sang?” Alpern testified.

But one of the main contributions of Tin Pan Alley, aside from the distribution and creation of popular music—including the Great American Songbook—as cited by those who testified, was its place in African-American history, and that it provided a space for marginalized communities to thrive economically and culturally.

“If I remove Jim Crow, and I remove The Klansman, from history, I also marginalize the Civil Rights Movement—do we take away Huckleberry Finn from our libraries? No, it informs my children what my grandmother’s struggle was about,” said Claudette Brady, founder of the Bed-Stuy Society for Historic Preservation, also citing the lack of African Americans in the room.

“When non-black people make issues about what my people should find offensive, I am highly offended,” she said.

“It is true that every song published by companies located in these buildings would not be sung at a concert today, but to dismiss these buildings and the importance of Tin Pan Alley because of a few racist songs, is to completely misunderstand the preservation and the value of cultural landmarking,” said Andrew Dolkart, Columbia University architecture professor and former LPC staff member. “American history is fraught with difficult issues often involving race, ethnicity, religion, sex, and gender—we need to understand the past in all of its complexity, in order to know who we are as a nation and a people.”

One activist in favor of the designation, Mario Messina, even mentioned the possibility of creating a Museum of American Popular Music in the area.

City officials including Council speaker Corey Johnson and Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer, sent representatives to provide statements in favor of designating the buildings as landmarks. “Some of us have tried to add Tin Pan Alley to the Madison Square North Historic District; this has been unsuccessful, so designating five Tin Pan Alley’s buildings would be a step in the right direction,” Johnson, who represents the area, said in a statement.

LPC staff said that a vote will be scheduled for the near future, but New Yorkers still have two weeks to submit their testimony online.