Preservationists and music history buffs have long been looking to have Tin Pan Alley—the stretch of 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues where sheet music publishers, and composers and lyricists who crafted many now-musical standards flourished—officially landmarked. Last month, the Landmarks Preservation Commission said it began looking to calendar the exteriors of five buildings on the street, all of which were crucial to building out what's now known as the popular music industry.
But the owner of said buildings, Yair Levy, doesn't seem as keen on having them landmarked. Through his representatives, Levy is reportedly trying to halt the landmarking effort, citing that the buildings aren't fit to be given the designation because of racist songs produced there. Ken Fisher, the representative for Levy's family trust, told the tabloid that “these songs made bigotry socially acceptable again.”
According to the NY Post, Fisher commissioned a report from historian Andrew Alpern that outlines racist songs that several companies printed on Tin Pan Alley, particularly by the publishing house M. Whitmark & Sons. Supporters of the landmarking effort don't deny this, but instead point to the fact that many African American songwriters, including Paul Laurence Dunbar and Noble Sissle, thrived on Tin Pan Alley, writing and performing songs that are critical to the American musical canon.
"Burying history, even ugly history, is not a way for us to learn from and evolve," George Calderaro, Project Director of the Save Tin Pan Alley Initiative of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association, tells Gothamist. "This designation is not intended to celebrate every song published during the era. It’s celebrating the birthplace of American popular music in the 20th century. And to learn from our history, we must confront even the most difficult aspects of our past and honor those who overcame and rose above it."
Tin Pan Alley undeniably has a gnarled history when it comes to race, especially regarding the songs produced there that did reinforce racist beliefs and stereotypes. "What we now call Tin Pan Alley depended on a meeting of Jews and African Americans in the modern American city, where the two cultures interacted informally in neighborhoods, music halls and businesses," writes Rachel Rubin, a Professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. "While some commentators find evidence for intercultural sympathy in the sprightly rhythms, blue notes, and vernacular lyrics of Tin Pan Alley songs, it is also important to remember that the music flourished in a context of institutional racism," she adds.
It's worth noting that the five former Tin Pan Alley buildings up for landmarking, located at 7 W. 28th Street, 49 W. 28th Street, 51 W. 28th Street, 53 W. 28th Street, and 55 W. 28th Street, are zoned for commercial use, and under current regulations, replaced by towers. "I have nothing against tall buildings—I’m a member of the Skyscraper Museum—but we should not be building tall buildings and sacrificing our really irreplaceable cultural history," says Calderaro, adding that he believes Levy and his team are using this aspect of Tin Pan Alley's past, while true, as an "excuse to stymie landmark designation."
Levy is banned from selling real estate securities for life, after he was found guilty of taking over $7 million from a reserve fund through a condo conversion. At the time, his tenants didn't have heat or hot water during the winter months, according to Crain's. In an interview with the real estate site, Levy said that he could, in fact, sell condos again if he felt like it, but he'd have to go through his family trust.
Updated: The Landmarks Preservation Commission had a hearing today about the possibility of moving the buildings closer to landmark status. “LPC is considering these 5 buildings on West 28th Street for their cultural significance, as representatives of Tin Pan Alley and the history of American popular music industry," a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission said in a statement provided to Gothamist. "While some of the music published during this era reflects the racism in America at the time, some of Tin Pan Alley’s most notable composers were African-American songwriters. The stories behind these buildings allow us to better understand not only the important moment in musical history and popular culture, but also the realities that African Americans faced during this time and their achievements against that backdrop.”