Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The Mag Mile goes car-free for Oprah
By John Greenfield
On Tuesday, September 8, I drop by Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to check out a nearly unique phenomenon: the bustling Magnificent Mile shopping district void of motor vehicles and packed with people, between the river and Ohio Street, for a taping of the season premier of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Between set-up and tear-down the street closure is lasting about two days.
The city normally only shuts down the artery to motorized traffic for an annual parade to kindle the street's holiday lights. But Mayor Daley has said the “Oprah Kickoff Party” will give a boost to the local economy and bring positive attention to the city – just what he needs as he’s trying to get Chicago selected next month to host the 2016 Olympics.
CTA buses are being re-routed off Michigan and drivers have grumbled to the media that their commute will be screwed up. Me, I’m happy anytime cars are removed from public space to make room for people to hang out and have fun, from neighborhood festivals to the Open Streets ciclovia.
I’ve read that the few bicycle racks on Michigan will be off-limits, probably due to fears of bikes being used as pipe bombs, so I lock up on Ohio a block west of the “Boule Mich.” Barricades are set up along the south side of the Ohio/Michigan intersection and lining Michigan all the way to the river, so you have to go through a checkpoint to hang out in the street with audience members.
But the sidewalks along Michigan are still accessible, though crowded, and in theory one could still patronize the fancy shops. It’s around 4 pm - the taping of the show takes place from 5 to 7 - and motorized traffic is light north of Ohio. A mass of humanity is gathered in front of the giant stage, set up just north of the river.
Pedicab driver Bobby Lentell is hanging out at Ohio/Michigan waiting for passengers, but he’s probably going to have a long wait – he’s only had one fare all day. “This hasn’t been as helpful as I thought it would be,” he says. “I think most people are sticking around and aren’t trying to catch a ride anywhere. It’s a lot like election night was in Grant Park.”
Still Lentell, who operates as an independent, thinks the street closure is a good thing for the city. “I’m sure some people are irritated but I think it’s kind of nice,” he says. “It’s relaxing, like Sunday afternoon.” He asks me to put in a plug for a route he and other pedicab drivers are proposing for this month’s Critical Mass bike parade that will end at a fundraiser to help establish a communal garage for pedicabs in Garfield Park.
Walking south on the sidewalk along the west side of Michigan I encounter Alex and Arcel, here on holiday from Munich, Germany. “This is great,” says Alex. “We saw the Black Eyed Peas perform and they were really cool.” She says in Munich it’s common to close down streets for concerts.
As I get closer to the stage the throng in the street gets denser. Reflecting Oprah’s audience, the crowd is racially mixed and mostly women. There are plenty of people taking advantage of the captive audience, handing out flyers for everything from cell phone services to psychics.
As a country singer performs onstage, South Sider and longtime Oprah fan Joanne Brown, resting in the Plaza of the Americas near a statue of Mexican president Benito Juarez, says she’s enjoying the street closure. “I like the fact that you can walk a lot of places you normally can’t,” she says. “And it gives people a chance to mingle. I’d like to see the city do this more often. It’s a peaceful gathering, and that’s always a good thing.”
To take a break from the masses I head downstairs from the plaza to Lower Hubbard Street and duck into the subterranean Billy Goat Tavern. The bar is only partly full but owner Sam Sianis tells me business has been good today. “People are enjoying themselves up there,” he says. “All of them have big smiles on their faces.” He’s fine with closing down Michigan once in a while. “For a good show, it’s OK.” He says he’s met Oprah three times: twice at her studios and once on Jay Leno.
Lots of people are milling around down on Lower Michigan. I take a different staircase back up to the Mag Mile sidewalk. A barricaded walkway allows me to cross through an incredibly dense section of people. A helicopter and the Goodyear Blimp are hovering overhead.
Standing with his bicycle on the west side of the avenue, Portage Park resident Israel Rivera seems grumpy. He stopped by to check out the scene on his way to the lakefront. “This is kind of a hassle,” he says. “It messes up traffic.” Rivera says he used to live in Logan Square and street festivals there would make it difficult to drive home. “It’s the same thing with the Pride Parade. It’s too crowded and crazy to even walk your bike through it.”
At Allen Edmonds, an upscale mens’ shoe store, assistant manager Dave Nelson says the closure is definitely affecting business. “Oprah’s show is geared towards women and we sell mens’ stuff,” he says. “But it’s not a big deal. I think it would be cool if they did this more often.”
Soon after I return to the street a voice over the sound system booms, “Ladies and gentlemen please welcome Oprah,” and the crowd goes wild. The talk show host’s persona is larger than life, as is her image on the multiple Jumbotron screens, as she says to the audience, “I can see you all the way down the Magnificent Mile.” Later she greets Mayor Daley and his wife who wave to the crowd via Jumbotron.
I have a lot of respect for Oprah as a cultural figure and also as an ambassador for our city, but her show is not my cup of tea. After another lip-synched performance by the Black-Eyed Peas featuring synchronized dance moves by hundreds of plain-clothes dancers planted at the front of the audience, and an underwhelming magic trick by Vegas showman Criss Angel, I’ve had my fill of middlebrow pop culture and start heading back to my bicycle. Although this is not my scene, it is a wonderful scene, of people enjoying each other’s company on car-free streets.