Not for Sale! New Yorkers Try to Save Historic Tin Pan Alley

Street home to some of America's catchiest lyrics

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    George Gershwin (left) and his brother (Ira) produced memorable music within Tin Pan Alley.

    A group of New Yorkers is fighting to save Tin Pan Alley by turning the half-dozen Manhattan row houses where the iconic American song was born into landmarks.

    The four-story, 19th-century buildings on West 28th Street were home to publishers of some of the catchiest American tunes and lyrics -- from "God Bless America" and "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" to "Give My Regards to Broadway." The music of Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, George M. Cohan and other greats was born on Tin Pan Alley.
     
    The houses were put up for sale earlier this fall for a whopping $44 million, with plans for a possible high-rise on the block. The plans fell through amid the turmoil in the economy, but the possibility of losing the historic block hastened efforts to push for landmark status for Tin Pan Alley.
     
    "The fear of these buildings being sold for development crystallized their importance, and the need to preserve them," said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a nonprofit preservation organization aiming to secure city landmark status for the buildings.

    The Landmarks Commission is "researching the history of the buildings and reviewing whether they'd be eligible for landmark designation," said Lisi de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

    No date has been set for a decision, which she said depends on "a combination of historical, cultural and architectural significance."

    A landmark designation would protect the row houses from being destroyed.

    The block is sacred to Tim Schreier, a great-great-grandson of Jerome H. Remick, whose music publishing company occupied one of the houses and employed a young sheet music peddler named George Gershwin.

    "I'm not opposed to development in New York, but we have to balance development with history -- and this is definitely American cultural history," said Schreier.

    From the late 1880s to the mid-1950s, the careers of songwriters who are still popular today were launched from 45, 47, 49, 51, 53 and 55 West 28th -- walls filled with the stories behind the songs.

    While composing his music on this block, Berlin also was "a song plugger," said Bankoff. "He'd give you a couple of bars of a song, and ask, 'What d'you think?"'
     
    Leland Bobbe, a 59-year-old photographer, has been renting his apartment at 51 W. 28th St. -- Remick's old building -- since 1975. He says it's important to salvage the houses in a neighborhood "that has lost its uniqueness. It's just another symbol of what New York was and what it will no longer be."

    Nearby, high-rise condominiums have pushed out old brownstones. The four-story Tin Pan Alley buildings house street-level wholesale stores selling clothing, jewelry and fabrics; eight apartment units fill the upper floors. It's a noisy neighborhood, with trucks beeping as they back up amid street hawkers selling bootleg movies and knockoff perfumes.

    It was just as noisy a century ago -- in a different way. The windows of various music companies released a cacophony of competing piano sounds that earned this part of West 28th Street the nickname Tin Pan Alley, to describe what one journalist said sounded like pounding on tin pans.

    The interiors have been altered, but Bobbe's apartment still has the original wood-plank floor and buckled tin ceiling, and the worn wooden front door is more than a century old. The facades are mostly original, though repainted greenish and not a pretty sight, with crumbling cornices and window frames badly in need of repair.

    Bobbe pays about $1,000 a month for his 1,000-square-foot apartment -- a bargain compared to Manhattan's stratospheric rents. Since the buildings were legally considered commercial loft space for many decades, residents have had to pay for most upkeep and the owner couldn't charge market-rate rents.

    For now, as landmark status is being considered, the wrecking ball won't touch this real estate that Schreier, the publisher's great-great-grandson, says "is part of my blood."