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.