Author David Freeland visited our Faculty Resource Seminar today and offered us a glimpse of the city as it appears to him: as a palimpsest with layers of meaning waiting to be rediscovered if one knows where to look and what to look for. He took us through sites that animate his book Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure: the Atlantic Garden on the Bowery, once the city’s most popular German beer garden; the American Mutoscope Studio, once located atop the Roosevelt Building on Union Square; Tin Pan Alley; and Horn & Hardart’s flagship automat on Times Square. As David puts it in his book, one reason he has chosen to “spotlight buildings of entertainment and leisure (as opposed to those devoted strictly to government or business) is because these are the places that most often disappear after their economic usefulness runs out, casualties of an American popular culture that is always moving to the next trend.” What interests David mosts are culturally significant sites that little chance of being landmarked.
One question that arose for which none of us had a ready answer was related to the discussion of “Tin Pan Alley” on the south side of 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Asked the origin of the nickname, David recounted the anecdote that he tells on page 87 of his book, in which journalist and songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld asked his friend, music writer and publisher Harry Von Tilzer, something like: “What is that you’ve been playing on? It sounds like a tin pan.” David noted that the name probably stuck because it was a pun on an extant street, “Tin Pot Alley,” now Exchange Street just south of Rector Street. But to what, we wondered, did “Tin Pot Alley” refer?
Oldstreets.com has an answer for us: “Tin Pot Alley. (L18?-M19) An anglicization of the Dutch name Tuyn Paat, meaning Garden Alley. It is now Exchange Alley and Edgar Street.”
In the afternoon, David led us on a walking tour of Harlem, showing us the site of the old Baby Grand club, which existed from 1947 to 1989 and is now a Radio Shack. Recently, due to the wearing down of the sidewalk in front of the store, portions of an old sign for the club have become visible.
Other stops on our walk included the facade of the old Pabst Beer Garden on 124th Street; the Hotel Theresa; the site of the old Alhambra Theater, built in 1903; the Astor Row Houses on 130th Street, which David describes as a “preservation success story,” close to but seemingly far from the bustle of 125h Street; the house where Langston Hughes spent his later years; and finally the Lenox Lounge, a historic Harlem jazz club. (Because the best walking tours end up at a watering hole.)
We’re grateful to David for spending the day with us and look forward to collaborating with him on future projects.