Thursday, March 15, 2007
Printing House Square
I have always felt myself drawn to an area of Manhattan near city hall but east of it where Park Row starts to veer eastward beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. It is an area that now embraces city buildings and Pace University. From Helprin's Winter's Tale, I gradually have come to the realization that this was once the location of Printing House Square, an area that was the most vibrant and provocative square in the city, where the power of the press and the Fourth Estate was literally born and rose to prominence.
Helprin describes why the location of Printing House Square was so appropriate and contributed to the dynamic life of the city:
...On Printing House Square in lower Manhattan, ...it had been the place near the center of government for the political news; the wharves, for the collection of foreign dispatches; the Five Points, for crime; the Bowery, for theater and music; and Brooklyn (via the ferry, until they finished the bridge), for human interest.
Because Helprin located it at the "junction of Dark Willow, Breasted, Tillinghast, and Pine Streets," I first sought out Pine Street, but found it seemed too low in Manhattan and I couldn't find traces of the other streets. Further, this location did not appear to coincide with Walt Whitman's descriptions, which seemed to place it further north near Chatham Square. From Whitman's accounts, I believe that Nassau Street and Park Row figured more prominently into the proximity of Printing House Square. Whitman was the editor of the New York Aurora on Nassau Street for a while and then was booted and landed for a three-month stint in 1842 as editor of The Evening Tattler at 27 Ann Street. His sojourns around this area during the early years of his efforts to be a journalist helped me piece together some locations that helped delineate Printing House Square. Then I came upon the engraving made in the 1860s of this fabulous square and realized that it was enormous, and may have indeed at one time, stretched as far south as Pine Street.
Then I came across a book by Frank Moss, published in 1897, The American Metropolis, which provides incredible, detailed descriptions of Manhattan, and the activities of Printing House Square in colorful, anecdotal detail:
In Printing House Square many times have been crowded great armies of patriotic citizens, rejoicing over the victories of war announced on the bulletins, or watching with pale faces the announcements of terrible defeats. In times of riot newspaper offices here have been barricaded and garrisoned by resolute defenders of the freedom on the press...(233) The News of great elections has been received in Printing House Square by countless multitudes. Every great event for fifty years past has been watched for and learned from the bulletin boards , by throngs assembled in this square. Here, when newspapers have prepared to show election news, is the place to see New York at it's best and its worst. (238) ...On the night of the first Tuesday of November, there was another great gathering of the people in Printing House Square, but there was no solemnity about it; it was a tumult of rapture, and a convulsion of joy. The immense crowd filled the square, leaving barely room for the cars to pass through, and it extended into the part as far back as it was possible for human vision to catch the bulletins that were constantly flashed upon the tall fronts of the newspaper buildings. (239)
Earlier in the book, Frank Moss extols the great significance of Printing House Square:
The square will ever be famous as the place where The Great American Newspaper has had its development. Greeley, Raymond, Dana, Jones, and many others, hardly less famous, have done their life work here, and have enriched the nation and the world by it. (214)
Printing House Square dominated the life of Manhattan, the nation, and the world for more than a century. It began to break up when the New York Times moved to Long Acre Square at 42nd Street and gave it the new name of Times Square in 1904. I am astonished that New York City has let such a legacy dissolve into oblivion with such little notice of its historical significance.
Thanks, Mark Helprin, for restoring some of the luster and life of Printing House Square!