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Tony Schwartz, undated "head shot"
Tony Schwartz

Tony Schwartz and the Voices of a Lost Neighborhood

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This August, we mark the centennial of Tony Schwartz (b. August 19, 1923, d. June 15, 2008), a radio and recording innovator whose collection the Library of Congress acquired in 2007. We first blogged about it in 2014:

His unusual but vital and influential career grew out of his passion for recording people and places, especially in his native New York. Though he suffered from agoraphobia, the prospect of exploring the sounds of the world outside kept pulling him out the door throughout his life.

For most of his adult life, Schwartz lived on West 56th Street near 10th Avenue in Manhattan. From here, he produced radio shows and record albums from the thousands of recordings now at the Library of Congress, as well as innovative advertising and public service announcements.

Tony Schwartz, date unknown in his studio on West 56th Street, Manhattan

A few blocks north of his home lay the neighborhood known both as “San Juan Hill” and “Lincoln Square,” which stretched from West 59th to West 65th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues. At the time, plans to raze the neighborhood to build the cultural complex known today as Lincoln Center were facing spirited but doomed resistance from the neighborhood’s residents. For a time, nearby Carnegie Hall was also threatened with destruction.

Lincoln Square residents picket Astor […] / World Telegram & Sun photo by Phil Stanziola, 1956 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
With his microphone and tape recorder, Schwartz documented what he saw as a living and breathing community. Coincidentally, it was at about the same time that a musical about teenage gangs in the neighborhood called “West Side Story” was being developed. It’s one of the enduring works of the American musical theater, but what Schwartz found in Lincoln Square went far beyond gang wars and, in spite of the neighborhood’s reputation for violence and crowded, decaying tenements, Schwartz found it to be the home of a rich and varied community that included African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Italians and others, including a young Jewish man singing a song that his parents brought to the United States, as well as a band of Galicians from Spain, playing the gaita, that region’s traditional bagpipe.

Schwartz featured some of these recordings on his weekly WNYC morning radio segment as protests continued, but the courts cleared the way for the project in 1958, and by late 1959, the neighborhood was a ghost town of empty lots and few residents. On election day that year, the “Daily News” noted that only four registered voters still resided there.

On September 23, 1962, the day before the first new building in Lincoln Center, Philharmonic Hall, opened, Schwartz broadcast a 15-minute collection of his Lincoln Square recordings on WBAI, reminding listeners in sound of what they could no longer see, and hoping that some of the culture that neighborhood once housed might find its way back there. You can listen to it here:

For more on Tony Schwartz and his collection at the Library of Congress, see:

WNYC, Tony Schwartz’s broadcast home for many years, has posted many programs from the Tony Schwartz Collection at the Library of Congress:


For more information related to this blog or any Library of Congress holdings, please see Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.

To learn more about the National Recording Registry, click here.

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