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Printers Row Was Once The ‘Printing Capital Of The Midwest.’ Its Rich Literary Tradition Lives On

No more publishers are in the neighborhood — but you can find the legacy of the printing industry in bookstores, the Lit Fest and more.

A motif of a bookbinder adorns the facade of the Franklin Building in Printers Row on Aug. 2, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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PRINTERS ROW — Printers Row is gearing up this weekend’s Lit Fest, which celebrates the neighborhood’s history as — well, a home for printers.

The free Saturday festival highlights authors and independent bookstores. Now in its 37th year, it’s become a major event in Chicago, regularly drawing crowds of 100,000 people.

The festival also honors the rich literary history of the South Loop district, which has been around for more than 130 years and has been immortalized in pop culture.

Though there are no longer publishers and printers in the area, its legacy carries on through events like the Lit Fest.

‘Printing Capital Of The Midwest’

There’s a pervasive myth that the area of the South Loop known as Printers Row became populated after the Great Chicago Fire.

But if you ask Peter Alter, chief historian at the Chicago History Museum, that’s incorrect. The fire was in 1871, while the real catalyst for bringing businesses and residents to the area was in 1885: the opening of Dearborn Station.

“The completion of Dearborn Station is when we start to think about Printers Row,” Alter said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Looking north along Dearborn Street in the Printer’s Row neighborhood on Aug. 2, 2022.

Widespread recognition of the neighborhood’s name might have developed later, though.

“What’s interesting about the name, in a search of the Chicago Tribune archive, the [oldest] hit I get is 1907,” Atler said. “You don’t see the use of ‘Printers Row’ in a more universal way [until the area was] a mess in the 1960s and ’70s, and we needed to clean it up. The term ‘Printers Row’ was not used widely outside that neighborhood until people were worried about it.”

Regardless, this part of the South Loop — stretching from Ida B. Wells Drive to Polk Street and from Clark to State — had already seen an influx of printers — giving it the name — before the fire. They arrived in droves, constructing large buildings that could fit printing presses stretching multiple city blocks on unbroken wood floors.

The first came quite early: Publisher John Calhoun moved there in 1833, printing the Chicago Democrat newspaper before selling it in 1836.

By 1860, 29 publishers were in the area, and the number kept growing, pulling in big publishing companies such as Rand McNally, M. A. Donohue & Co. and R. R. Donnelley & Sons.

Raw materials would come into Dearborn Station, and completed books, newspapers and magazines would go back out through the station.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Printer’s Row Park features benches shaped like type blocks in the Printer’s Row neighborhood on Aug. 2, 2022.

The printing companies boomed and busted, sticking around until the 1940s and ’50s. Near the end of their tenure, organized crime had taken over some of the publications coming out of the area, Alter said.

But even with the Outfit’s strong city connections, nothing could keep Printers Row afloat. The publishers didn’t all leave at once, but they did all move on as companies found ways to cut costs and the culture around printing shifted.

“With the expressway system [built in the ’50s], you could move your smaller press to the suburbs where land was cheaper and you could spread out,” Alter said. “And then when you move away from those presses, and we have changing technology and no longer need to concentrate the industry in one place, you get the increasing focus of the printing industry in New York.

“While Chicago was the printing capital of the Midwest for a while, that went away because planes and expressways allowed us to more quickly move things outside of [cities]. Printers Row isn’t unique in this.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Dearborn Station in the Printers Row neighborhood on Aug. 2, 2022.

Today, no more publishers are in the neighborhood — the last, Palmer Printing, closed in 2018. But you can still find the legacy of the printing industry in bookstores, the Lit Fest, parking garages, lofts, and architecture.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when Printers Row was struggling and considered derelict by many residents, locals revitalized the neighborhood by converting the giant printing press buildings into residential lofts and parking garages. Many of those buildings still stand, including two that are considered the grandparents of the Chicago School of Architecture: the Morton building, 538 S. Dearborn St., and the Duplicator building, 530 S. Dearborn St. Dearborn Station is still there, as well.

Printers Row’s history — and especially that of the Dearborn Station — has a place in art, as well: In Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” the protagonist and his family arrive in Chicago at Dearborn Station, and that’s the first time he sees the city, Alter said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
People walk along Polk Street in the Printer’s Row neighborhood on Aug. 2, 2022.

There’s also a Nov. 26, 1974, episode of “MASH” featuring the station. Hawkeye describes the neighborhood:

“There’s a place in Chicago near the Dearborn Street Station, I don’t know the name of it. They served ribs, the best in the world. They had a barbecue sauce with it, a flamboyant, devil-may-care yet introspective sauce. Ambrosia! The gods on Olympus, when they got tired of pizza, they sent out for these ribs. … Henry, they were sensational. The ribs burned my upper lip. I had a little cut. I kept the scar alive for a year. The pain was exquisite.”

The characters eventually discover the name of the rib joint: Adam’s Ribs. That episode spawned a massive search for Adam’s Ribs, with devoted fans coming to Chicago in droves to follow Hawkeye’s directions and find the most delicious ribs in the city.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Donohue Buildings, 710 S. Dearborn St., in the Printer’s Row neighborhood on Aug. 2, 2022.

Unfortunately, Adam’s Ribs was never a real spot — executive producer Larry Gelbart made it up. But there is still a legitimate Chicago connection to the show. Gelbart was from here, and his son’s name was Adam — hence the fictional but delicious restaurant.

“Part of it had to do with the city’s ‘hog butcher for the world’ reputation,” Gelbart told the Sun-Times in 2009. “But it principally was just a conceit, a loving homage, to a place that I can never forget.”

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