Oprah Brought Chicago Jobs, Development And Pride

May 24, 2011
Originally published on May 24, 2011 4:28 pm

After 25 years on the air, Oprah Winfrey, the queen of daytime television, brings her show to an end Wednesday. It's a bittersweet moment for Chicago, the city where Winfrey brought plenty of attention — and money.

Winfrey's Harpo Studios is a landmark in Chicago's West Loop: The facility takes up a full block in a neighborhood of loft condos, restaurants, art galleries and the remnants of a Chicago market district of food processors and manufacturers.

Harpo opened in 1990, in a neighborhood that had been on the decline for years, says Phil Ashton, a professor of urban planning at University of Illinois-Chicago. The studio was a cornerstone of the neighborhood's revival, and it "introduced a population of employees and consumers who were there on a day-by-day basis," Ashton says.

Chef Ina Pinkney, owner of Ina's Restaurant, a Harpo executive hangout, knows full well the before-and-after Oprah effect. Before Pinkney moved her restaurant into the West Loop, she used to buy produce in the area. "I remember the neighborhood as incredibly rough," Pinkney says. "It was just a place you came to buy your stuff and go home."

But after Winfrey built Harpo, Pinkney says, the neighborhood underwent a gradual metamorphosis. "She began to buy up some buildings right around the neighborhood and she began to stake a claim," Pinkney says. Winfrey was essentially saying, "I'm here, and everything is going to change."

Once Oprah was syndicated, people began pouring into the neighborhood: There were hundreds of Harpo employees and crowds of audience members — more than a million over the 25 years of the show as Winfrey became a media mogul and international superstar. Oprah crowds have been out in full force this month — more than 20,000 fans from across the country showed up for the tapings of her last two shows.

"She's put this place on the map more so than any other individual celebrity," says Chicago resident and Oprah fan Wade Childress. "Well, OK, Barack [Obama] maybe," he concedes, "but she's done it over a longer period of time and reinforced it over and over again like nobody could."

Shortly after Winfrey opened Harpo Studios in 1990, she said she would never move her production facility or her show out of the city. Winfrey was inducted into the Illinois Broadcasters Association's Hall of Fame in early May. As she accepted the honor, she recounted her experience coming to Chicago in 1983 to audition for what was then a local talk show: "On my way to the audition [I was] just loving the vibe of the city so much," she said. Winfrey says she told herself, "If I don't get the job, I've got to find a way to get back."

But she got the job and created a media empire, becoming a global brand headquartered in Chicago. And an appreciative Chicago has been saying thanks as Winfrey closes down her show. During the last days of his tenure, Chicago's former mayor Richard Daley stood outside Harpo Studios to present Winfrey with an honorary street sign: Oprah Winfrey Way. "She's been a great ambassador for our city," Daley said. "It makes me very, very proud to have your name on one of Chicago's city streets," he told her.

Winfrey said the honor was better than winning an Oscar ... or an Emmy. And then a woman who has won plenty of Emmys lifted her very own Chicago street sign high: "This place is my Tara," Winfrey told the crowd. "Scarlett O'Hara should have known about Chicago."

Oprah will soon be gone with the wind; the show officially ends Wednesday. Harpo Studios will continue to be busy, though. Rosie O'Donnell will tape a one-hour daytime talk show set to launch in the fall on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

After a quarter of a century on the air, the queen of daytime television brings her show to an end tomorrow. The departure of Oprah Winfrey is a bittersweet moment for Chicago. Winfrey brought the city lots of attention, cache and economic development. NPR's Cheryl Corley has this report on how Oprah changed Chicago.

CHERYL CORLEY: Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios is a landmark in Chicago's West Loop. The facility takes up a full block in a neighborhood of loft condos, restaurants, art galleries and the remnants of a Chicago market district - the food processors and manufacturers. Harpo opened in 1990.

Professor PHIL ASHTON (University of Illinois Chicago): It introduced a population of employees and of consumers who were there on a day-by-day basis.

CORLEY: University of Illinois Chicago urban planning Professor Phil Ashton says the area had been on the decline for years and Harpo was a cornerstone of its revival.

Ina's Restaurant, a hangout for Harpo executives, is part of that revival too. Chef and owner Ina Pinkney says she knows full well the before and after Oprah effect. Pinkney says before she moved her restaurant into the West Loop, she used to buy produce in the area.

Ms. INA PINKNEY (Chef, Owner, Ina's Restaurant): I remember the neighborhood has being incredibly rough. It was just a place you came to buy your stuff and go home.

CORLEY: But after Oprah Winfrey built Harpo, Pinkney says the neighborhood underwent this slow metamorphosis.

Ms. PINKNEY: She began to buy up some buildings right around the neighborhood and she began to stake a claim and said I'm here and everything is going to change. She never had to say those words but it certainly meant something. Once her show went syndicated, my God, it was amazing because we had people coming to the neighborhood.

CORLEY: Hundreds of employees - between 300 to 500 at Harpo - and crowds of audience members - more than a million over the 25 years of the show - as Oprah Winfrey became a media mogul and international superstar. This month, the Oprah crowds have come out in full force. More than 20,000 fans from across the country showed up for the tapings of two of the last Oprah shows.

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

CORLEY: All the jostling and hustling this day took place not at Harpo but at the United Center, the sports arena that basketball star Michael Jordan made famous, but now it was Oprah time as people clicked photos to mark the moment.

Unidentified Woman: Say Oprah.

CROWD: Oprah.

CORLEY: There were some men in this mostly female crowd, like Wade Childress of Chicago.

Mr. WADE CHILDRESS: She's put this place on the map probably more so than any other individual celebrity - well, OK, Barack maybe. But she's done it over a longer period of time and reinforced it over and over again like nobody could.

CORLEY: Shortly after Oprah Winfrey opened Harpo Studios in 1990, she said she would never move her production facility or her show out of the city. Earlier this month, as she was inducted in the Illinois Broadcasters Association's Hall of Fame, she recalled coming into Chicago to audition for what was then a local talk show in 1983.

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk Show Host): On my way to the audition, just loving the vibe of the city so much that I felt if I don't get the job, I've got to find a way to get back here. And I literally thought if I don't get the job, maybe I'll move to advertising.

CORLEY: But Oprah got the job and created a media empire, becoming a global brand headquartered in Chicago, and an appreciative Chicago has been saying thanks as Oprah closes down her show.

Mr. RICHARD DALEY (Former Chicago Mayor): Now I give you Oprah Winfrey Way.

CORLEY: That's Chicago's former Mayor Richard Daley, who during his last days of tenure stood outside the Harpo Studios to present Oprah Winfrey with an honorary street sign.

Mr. DALEY: She's been a great ambassador for our city. It makes me very, very proud to have your name appear on one of Chicago's city streets.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. WINFREY: That's better than an Oscar or an Emmy.

CORLEY: Then the woman who's won plenty of Emmys lifted her Chicago street sign high.

Ms. WINFREY: This place is my Tara. Scarlet O'Hara should have known about Chicago.

CORLEY: But Oprah too is soon to be gone with the wind. Her show officially ends tomorrow. Though Harpo Studios will continue to be busy - Rosie O'Donnell will tape a one-hour daytime talk show here, set to launch in the fall on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.