Don’t feel bad if your answer to the above question is “No.” I certainly didn’t until I read the article in today’s New York Times which explains the critical role that this nondescript apartment complex in the Bronx, N.Y. played in the history of our pop culture. Thirty-four years ago, it seems, a Jamaica-born teen who called himself DJ Kool Herc started playing with some vinyl platters for friends and neighbors who’d gathered in a room on the building’s first floor; looking back, it’s clear that Herc’s early party tricks — years before Grandmaster Flash or Grand Wizard Theodore touched their first turntables—directly gave rise to what we now know as hip-hop music. Despite Kool Herc’s deserved profile as an elder statesman of rap, the building itself has largely faded into obscurity. Now, the Times reports, local residents are trying to get 1520 Sedgwick recognized as a historical landmark.
The Times piece is a fascinating read for a number of reasons. The activists’ real focus, it turns out, is something more urgent than music: While 1520 Sedgwick currently provides affordable housing for low-income families, its owners have taken actions which suggest they may be planning to force current residents out and find wealthier tenants. Official landmark status, however, would prevent them from making “any change that would affect [the building’s] character.” So this is really a story about the creeping march of gentrification. And that insidious force, after all, doesn’t just push out people who happen to have less financial agency — it also pushes out the unique, vibrant pop-cultural niches that give a city its mosaic identity.
Even without gentrification, though, our collective memories have a wayof erasing themselves. I grew up just three or four miles from thisstoried building without being aware of its existence; indeed, who knewthere was a specific, mappable location where hip-hop was born? TheTimes article makes it clear that even these community organizers hadno knowledge of 1520 Sedgwick Ave.’s significance until some chanceGoogling led them to online references to Herc’s work. We’re all luckythat they realized they were sitting on a piece of history. But whatother, equally important historical locations are we letting slip away?
What do you think, PopWatchers? Are you aware of any unsung pop-culture sites that are in danger of being forgotten?