Essay: Taking a Walkabout on Printer’s Row, a Neighborhood Within a Neighborhood

Dearborn Station postcard, ca. 1907. Image from the author’s collection.

There is a street in the South Loop—Dearborn from Polk to Harrison is only one block long—that is one of the most charming blocks in the city.

I say the South Loop but I am referring in particular to Printer’s Row, the neighborhood within a neighborhood. The heart of the neighborhood is one block along Dearborn Street from Polk on the south to Harrison on the north. (Officially Printer’s Row is defined by Ida B. Wells Drive on the north, Polk Street on the south, Plymouth Court on the east, and the Chicago River on the west.)

Today, Printer’s Row is probably best known for the annual Printer’s Row Lit Fest. Usually held in June, it was delayed until September—and canceled altogether last year—because of the pandemic. (It will be held on September 11 and 12.)

It’s a block of mostly small and local businesses. Sure there is a Starbucks a short walk away and a Bar Louie in the sadly and strangely misused space that is the otherwise wonderful Dearborn Station building. But at least the handsome Romanesque building is still standing and for that we should be grateful and grateful too that it houses the iconic Jazz Showcase. Since the entrance to the jazz club is off to the side I have often wondered if people, even those who live in the neighborhood, know it’s even there.

Sometimes you might even hear music in unexpected places. On a recent evening at the Printers Row Wine Shop, I had the pleasure of hearing Early James, a soulful Alabama-born singer-songwriter who, to these ears at least, is a cross between Marcus King and Van Morrison.

Printer’s Row is wonderfully self-contained. Ostensibly, people could live here within their one-block radius without any need to go anywhere else.

On one side of the block there is an upscale market, a Mexican restaurant, a dental studio, a wine shop, a café, a hair salon, a hair salon and spa, a dry cleaners, an attorney, a neighborhood tavern, and a church. On the other side of the street is a pizza place, another cleaners, a wellness center, a denim shop, an indie bookstore, a park, an Italian restaurant, and a Thai restaurant. And farther on down the street is a fine boutique hotel.

Jane Jacobs, the late author, urbanist, and activist who lived in Greenwich Village, supported the idea of neighborhoods with streets that contained small shops and residential buildings that encouraged neighbors to get to know each other. Neighbors don’t have to be best friends. They just have to be . . . neighborly. In her seminal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she referred to the street life on her own Greenwich Village block as “an intricate sidewalk ballet.”

Photo by June Sawyers.

The immutability of Printer’s Row––well, the buildings at least––is perhaps one of its biggest virtues and lends some reassuring semblance of comfort. Businesses open and close but the late 19th and early 20th century buildings remain essentially the same. That makes it unlike many parts of the city: a sense of continuity, if not quite permanence. It helps too that some of the businesses have been around for ages. Ellen and Ulrich Sandmeyer opened their eponymous bookstore in 1982 (sadly, the irrepressible Ulrich died in 2018).

Kasey’s Tavern, which calls itself Chicago’s second oldest tavern and boasts that it is has the second oldest liquor license in the city, opened in 1974 although a bar has been at the location for over a hundred years.

Printer’s Row has character and history. It looks like it belongs to another era, which, of course, it does. It’s this slightly out of time ambiance that appeals to people—and probably the reason Aaron Sorkin filmed scenes for his film, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, there. I happened to be mailing a package at the local UPS store on a crisp October day in 2019 when the crew was shooting a complicated scene involving hundred of protesters.

Sure there have been changes over the years. Plenty of them. Gone are Hackney’s and later Hax and before that, in the same space, Moonraker’s Pub. Years ago, Michael Foley was a pioneer in the South Loop, opening a destination restaurant in a place where few people wanted to go. He closed his fine dining restaurant, Printer’s Row, in 2004. Now, alas, it is a Potbelly outlet. Deli on Dearborn was located in the recently shuttered Nice & Distressed, vintage and consignment shop. Roots, the Davenport, Iowa-based pizza chain, is located on what used to be an empty lot and where we bought our Christmas tree. Also long gone is the still much-missed Prairie Avenue Bookstore (now Yehia & Co. salon). The former Printers Row Printing Museum and, later, the Printers Row Fine & Rare Books, is the Grail Café. And there are other culinary victims: Prairie Restaurant; around the corner, Blackie’s Tavern; and Gourmand Coffee.

Printers Row Wine Shop patio. Photo by June Sawyers.

The Walkabout

Rambling, tramping, sauntering, wandering. There are many words for walking in the city. Virginia Woolf called it “street haunting,” as she made her way through nighttime London. Flâneur, the French term, refers to an urban rambler with no particular place to go. My own term is “walkabout,” a deliberate riff on the Aboriginal Australian rite of passage. That is what I’ve been doing off and on since early spring but actually the more accurate word may be a made-up term, “sitabout.” (Disclaimer: This piece is not meant to be representative in any way but rather a very subjective reflection of one particular block.)

Weekends on the block can be busy but on Monday late afternoons and early evenings the street belongs to the locals. On days like these Dearborn feels far removed from the busyness and noise of nearby State Street or Wabash Avenue even though it is sandwiched between those two boisterous streets.

This is Printer’s Row at its most inviting, its most neighborly, its most casual, its most laidback. People walk out of Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, bags full of books or saunter into Kasey’s Tavern or sit outside on its expansive patio. Locals enjoy an informal barbeque in the park.

This is also the time when I tend to do my “walkabout”: Monday late afternoons that spill into the early evening hours. “In between time,” Mason calls it.

Mason is Mason Sane (“as not insane,” he jokes about his distinctive name). Mason is the food and beverage manager at the Printers Row Wine Shop Beer & Wine Bar. Originally from Ohio, he is the modern American version of a young gentleman: charming, self-deprecating, unfailingly polite, and genuinely kind: he makes everyone feel at home. He has style and is an expert in multitasking. He can hold a door for a customer with one hand one moment while cradling a drink order in the other the next. Another time you may find him snapping his fingers along to the music on one of the LPs he plays on the old-fashioned turntable, part of owner Flavio Gentile’s personal record collection and then minutes later, at the checkout, doing a Robin Williams routine with a customer. “I miss him,” he says about the comedian.

He’s helpful too. “Do you have Malort?” a young man asks Mason. The shop just happened to be out of the famous, if controversial, liquor that day. “No. Try the Warehouse on Wabash,” he says, referring to the liquor store a short walk away.

Street life adds immeasurably to the emotional wealth, the social capital, of a city. But the small things are the things “that the city’s soul clings to,” as Adam Gopnik once wrote in the New Yorker.
Sitting at the outdoor patio of Kasey’s Tavern or the Printers Row Wine Shop you see and hear things you might not otherwise notice. Mostly small things. I call it the secret art of eavesdropping. Walking south along Dearborn a young woman accompanied by a young man pulls a suitcase. “I just came from Logan Square,” she says. “And damn. So much has changed. I haven’t been gone that long.”
A young man pushes a baby carriage. Men and women walk their dogs. A child on a scooter wears a helmet, within sight of his mother’s watchful eye. From the patio of the wine shop looking north I can see the spires of the Sears Tower (okay, Willis Tower, if you insist) and Ceres on top of the Board of Trade building.

One early evening as I walk by the wine shop’s lovely outdoor patio, I overhear two men talking. “Have you heard of that bar that serves two beers?” one asks the other. I can’t resist.

“McSorley’s,” I say. ‘One dark and one light.”

As I walk away, the same gentleman yells after me, “Hey, do you know Joseph Mitchell?” I nod.

Photo by June Sawyers.

Joseph Mitchell, who wrote for the New Yorker, was a regular at McSorley’s and famously wrote about the iconic ale house in his essay “The Old House at Home,” which appears in the 2001 collection, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. (An aside: Another terrific book is Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me by Rafe Bartholomew, a poignant memoir about the bartending trade written from the perspective of the father and son who lived above the famous pub.)

People know each other here on a first-name basis.

“I saw Alfred walk by earlier,” Mason tells me. Alfred is a resident of the neighborhood.

Three year-old Lincoln, an ebullient blonde-haired boy with a tiny boy bun, runs towards Shelby, the co-manager at Kasey’s Tavern, who picks him up and brings him into the bar with his parents in tow.

Even the dogs are known by their names. Well, especially the dogs.

Ollie pauses outside Kasey’s open door, sniffs—there are dog biscuits on the counter–and tries to enter before his human, Stephanie, pulls him back with a laugh.

Adam, a cheerful and stylishly dressed Colombian-American, stops by for a glass of cider. Today he dons a panama hat and poncho and underneath a shirt decorated with tiny pineapples.

Lisa, a Kasey’s regular, drops off lunch—pasta salad today—for the staff.

It’s the little things that make a neighborhood.

Kasey’s is the kind of bar where the staff really does know your name. Kelsey, Kasey’s other co-manager, shares a toast with a customer. “What’s the occasion?” I ask. “It’s Thursday,” she replies with a smile. Moments later, a staff member yells out, running after a customer. “Hey, you left your wallet behind.”

The regulars at Kasey’s change depending on the time of day and the day of the week. The afternoon crowd is different from the evening crowd; the weekday crowd is not the same as the weekend crowd. It caters to everyone from construction workers to lawyers.

There is a particular rhythm to the block. Sometimes you see the same people, sometimes you don’t. During one of the colder days of my walkabout, I sat at the window inside the cozy confines of the wine shop and saw Brian Hieggelke, the founder and publisher of New City, walking south along Dearborn in the direction of Dearborn Station. I love the idea of seeing someone walking by whom you know but who might not always recognize you. Call it visual eavesdropping.

Of course, the neighborhood is busier than it used to be, which is why the city finally put a stoplight at Dearborn and Polk. In 2012, the city Department of Transportation redesigned Dearborn Street. It used to have three car lanes but after the change it was reduced to two car lanes and a barrier-protected two-way cycle lane. Not everyone was pleased. I know of at least one resident who complained that the new landscape reduced the natural symmetry of the street.

Photo from the author’s collection.

Dearborn Station

The anchor of the neighborhood, its historic heart, is Dearborn Station, Chicago’s oldest train station. It still stands, dramatically so, at the southern border of Printer’s Row. The Italian brick tower  replaced the extravagant one that was destroyed in 1922 during the Christmas season. The clock tower can be seen from blocks away.

Dearborn Station, or Polk Street Station as it was also called, was built in 1883 and was considered the entryway for immigrants and movie stars alike: they all came here, the famous and the ordinary, on the way to somewhere else. Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Bob Hope. It was also the arrival point for those attending the 1893 World’s Fair. The Santa Fe Railroad was based here and operated the popular Chicago to Los Angeles line: the El Capitan and Super Chief trains.

Photo from the author’s collection.

During its heyday the station housed one of the Fred Harvey restaurants. Harvey was a London-born entrepreneur who developed a chain of hotels and restaurants––he is credited with creating the first chain restaurants in the US––and most famously served passengers on such railways as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. He hired women between the ages of 18 and 30 and called them the Harvey Girls. Typically, the “girls” lived in houses near the restaurants where they could be supervised and chaperoned. A movie was made about them, the 1946 musical The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland. In his classic 1931 book, Dining in Chicago, dining critic John Drury described the restaurant as “old-fashioned” like the station itself. “It is small and quiet…” When Sherwood Anderson worked as an ad man in the city, Drury says he used to sit in a corner of Fred Harvey’s dining room, drinking his coffee and writing his short stories. I like the idea of a major Midwestern writer jotting down words in the old station. It adds a nice bit of historical literary cachet to the neighborhood.

But things change. In 1971 passenger traffic was rerouted to Union Station. The yards and train sheds behind the station were removed to make way for residences. In 1979 the sheds were demolished altogether. After many years of neglect, Dearborn Station reopened as a galleria in January 1986.

From Vice to Printers

In the late 19th century these usually quiet streets were the former vice district, part of the notorious Levee District and home to saloons, brothels, gambling dens. One of Chicago’s most famous, and colorful, politician-saloon owners was Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna. His saloon, the Workingman’s Exchange, was located around the corner on Clark Street near Van Buren. After the 1893 World’s Fair, the Levee began to move farther south and commercial and printing and bindery buildings were erected replacing the two- or three-story shanties, shacks, and bordellos.

Many of the buildings in what is now the Printing House Row Historic District were erected between 1883 and 1928 and housed the printing and publishing and subsidiary trades, including printers, typesetters, etchers, mapmakers, lithographers, and bookbinders in such structures as the Donohue Building in 1883 and the Donohue Annex in 1913; the Rowe Building in 1892; the Pontiac Building in 1890; Morton Building in 1896 built for the Morton Salt Company; the Pope Building in 1904; the Moser Building, former home of the Moser Paper Co. in 1909; and the Franklin Building, with its wonderful glazed terra cotta murals above the doorway, in 1912. The massive Transportation Building (1911) contained railway, shipping, and commercial offices. Eliot Ness had his office on the third floor. Around the corner on Plymouth Court is the Lakeside Press Building (1897), which housed a publisher and printing press.

Another altogether different kind of history took place when Judy Chicago’s multimedia installation The Dinner Party exhibition opened to the public on September 13, 1981, on the first floor of the Franklin Building. More than 70,000 people reportedly viewed the exhibit during its 21-week run.

My walkabout for the day is about to end but my mind continues to roam, ruminate, and reflect. I hear snippets of a conversation lost in the air and listen to the ambient street noise of city sanitation trucks and buses rumbling down the one-way street, the crack of an occasional skateboard, and the barking of dogs. But I also remember, and savor, the stillness of a late afternoon.

But there is something else going on: the serendipity of street life itself such as the unexpected pleasure of seeing neighbors walking down a street on the way to somewhere else or just going about their daily business, the greetings of “Hello, how are you?” Or, perhaps more profoundly, imagining the lives of strangers glimpsed through a foggy window: Where are they going? What is their story? Who are these souls that appear within one’s eyeshot for a few fleeting seconds only to vanish, never to be seen again? These are the simple pleasures, and mysteries, of knowing a city, a neighborhood, a block.

And so here I continue to sit at the outdoor patio, watching and observing and listening to the everyday humanity around me as another pandemic summer ends and the uncertainty of a pandemic autumn begins.

2017 Printers Row Lit Fest. Image courtesy Near South Planning Board.

The Printers Row Lit Fest takes place September 11–12. For more information, see their website.

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June Sawyers
June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.

One comment

  1. Great article about a special neighborhood, June … it brought back memories. Back in the late ’80s/early /’90s, I worked for a small newsletter publisher in the Old Colony building (when it was still black with soot, and had a bug problem and an actual elevator operator). On a fairly regular basis, I would walk the proofs to the printer on South Dearborn — one of the few remaining printers in an area not yet 100% yuppified. The splendid old loft building stock has indeed saved the neighborhood, protecting it from the suburban ickiness of nearby Dearborn Park. Thanks for the update on a street I’ve always loved.

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