As the former editor and publisher of a trade newspaper serving New York City's printing industry, I found much to remember and reflect upon in Jean-Marie Hershey's excellent post at PrintCEO.blog.com on the continuing disappearance of Manhattan's once-legendary printing districts. Having covered this story extensively as it unfolded over a period of many years, I'm reminded that New York's loss of stature as a print manufacturing center was indeed dramatic. I'm also awestruck, now as then, by the metro printing industry's capacity to outlast the very worst that market forces, time, and fate have conspired to heap upon it.
In the mid-1980s, when I began following the metro printing beat, lower Manhattan still was what it had been for decades prior to that: home to the largest concentration of printing businesses anywhere in the country. More than any other external factor, the realities of Manhattan's commercial real estate market gave the printing industry its special character and, unfortunately, its dangerous vulnerability to the slew of economic shocks that lay ahead.
The realities of Manhattan's commercial real estate market gave the printing industry its special character and its dangerous vulnerability to the economic shocks that lay ahead
The cramped nature of industrial properties in Manhattan - where almost no spacious, spread-out, single-story manufacturing buildings are to be found - made it difficult for printers to house prepress, postpress, and finishing departments alongside their pressrooms. As a result, the industry consisted mainly of "clusters" of printers and allied trade shops furnishing production services that the printers didn't have room to accommodate.
The Almighty Trinity
Many of these firms did their clustering in multi-story buildings throughout the district that Trinity Real Estate, the secular arm of historic Trinity Church and the printing industry's principal landlord, eventually christened "Hudson Square." Similar havens existed in Chelsea and on the far West Side - and, lest we forget, in Long Island City and a few other enclaves in the "outer boroughs" as well.
The clusters made sense, but for most of the firms inside them, operating a graphics business in New York City's printing districts was seldom less than a harsh daily struggle. Aggregating a multitude of busy, independent shops in one building might have been the next-best thing to vertical integration under one roof, but it could make sharing the building's single freight elevator a never-ending headache. Proximity to ad agencies, publishers, and other midtown customers was a plus, but anyone who has ever driven a car through the canyons of Manhattan in the middle of the day can picture what delivering a truckload of paper to any of these buildings was like.
Energy costs were punitive, as was the burden of the commercial real estate tax. And, although many printers tried to downplay it, the imbalance between hourly rates for skilled printing help in New York City and wage scales elsewhere in the country made it difficult for metro shops to compete with outsiders on the all-important basis of price.
Yet somehow, these never-say-die entrepreneurs kept their doors open, their press time mostly booked, their employees paid, their customers happy, and their pugnacious chins up - until the grim event that suddenly called the viability of their entire industry into question.
The Day Everything Changed
Like Jean-Marie and many other members of the industry, I was in Chicago for the Print '01 show when the aerial attacks of 9/11 all but paralyzed the sections of lower Manhattan where the bulk of the metro area's print community was concentrated. Some of these firms lost their space outright in evacuations brought on by air-quality concerns and other emergency conditions. Because, for weeks afterward, it simply wasn't possible to move about in the southern end of Manhattan island, even those who could stay in their premises were barred from producing corresponding amounts of work - an economic blow from which any printer, anywhere, would be extremely hard pressed to recover.
For weeks after 9/11, it simply wasn't possible to move about in the southern end of Manhattan island, and even those who could stay in their premises were barred from producing corresponding amounts of work
As we know, many printing tenants didn't recover, but even that tragic thinning of the ranks doesn't account for the reduced state in which the industry found itself once New York City had returned more or less to normal in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. By then, the factors noted by Jean-Marie and Dr. Joe Webb - soaring rents, out-of-state competition, and digital disintermediation, to say nothing of the stock market meltdown of 2000 - had already done their cruel work, as industrial censuses revealing the loss of hundreds of metro graphics businesses annually made painfully clear.
And while it would be easy to vilify Trinity Real Estate for doing what it did to jettison its lessees in the printing trades in the midst of all of this, it has to be acknowledged that many of these tenants would have succumbed anyway to other business pressures even if their landlord had wanted them to stay. Nor did printers get much help from the mayoral administrations of David Dinkins and Ed Koch, during which a series of changes to zoning regulations eliminated provisions that had protected printing buildings from being converted to non-industrial uses by their owners. The chic restaurants and the sleek luxury retailers we see in Manhattan districts once set aside for manufacturing are the legacy of those changes.
This You Call "Retention"?
In this writer's opinion, the City's contradictory policies on what it presumed to call "business retention" had as much to do with the diminishment of the printing industry as any action taken by the landlords. Among its feckless responses to the wave of conversions it had green-lighted with zoning handovers to the real estate interests were attempts to set up refuges for displaced printers in metro area backwaters such as Hunt's Point in the Bronx and the Brooklyn Army Terminal (a vast architectural relic from World War I) in that borough. Takers, predictably, were few.
Some in City government tried to be on the printers' side - for example, Alair Townsend, now the publishing director of Crain's New York Business, always listened sympathetically to them during her tenure as deputy mayor for finance and economic development in the Koch years. Print industry veterans Ira Brophy and Mark Baff also are warmly remembered for doing what they could as appointed liaisons to the print community.
It's also true that the City offered tax-advantaged industrial development bonds, relocation expense reimbursement, energy cost relief, and a few other forms of assistance to printers being squeezed to the limit by the hostility that the real estate market was now openly showing them. But, as Dr. Joe correctly notes in his response to the original post, this aid was reserved almost exclusively for those agreeing to uproot themselves from Manhattan's central business district and the Trinity enclaves where so many had done so much business for so long.
Remembrance and Celebration
The 9-11-07 publication date of the article in The New York Times cited by Jean-Marie is a pause-giving reminder that we have put only a handful of years between ourselves and the event that could have driven the metro area's much-battered printing industry over the brink of extinction - but didn't.
New York City still ranks among the nation's top five metropolitan area printing centers - not bad for a town that sometimes seems to have done everything to drive its printers away short of summoning the aid of an angel with a flaming sword
If, as Dr. Joe informs us, 885 commercial printers remain in Manhattan, that's a reason to celebrate the industry's amazing powers of endurance, not an excuse to lament the fact that it used to be bigger. That clustering continues to work is seen in the fact that PIA/GATF's Economic Research Department still ranks New York City among the nation's top five metropolitan area printing centers - not bad for a town that sometimes seems to have done everything to drive its printers away short of summoning the aid of an angel with a flaming sword.
Perhaps because it won't be long before I am one of them myself, I'm inclined to remember the things that the old-timers used to tell me about New York's printing industry in its heyday: that you couldn't enter a building south of 14th Street that didn't contain at least one printing business; that the rumble you felt as you walked along Hudson Street or Varick Street probably wasn't that of a passing subway train but of a web press running at full tilt.
That's the folklore, but on the night I learned that those flashes I would see bursting from the upper stories of darkened downtown buildings were the manmade lightning of camera departments in printing companies, I discovered a truth beyond refuting. New York City is and ever will be a printing town - even if things should again go from routinely bad to unimaginably worse as they did on the terrible day when we all found the true iron in the industry's indomitable soul.