Volume 78 - Number 34 / January 21 - 27, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Villager photo by Milo Hess
Celebrating Obama’s inauguration in Foley Square down by the courts.
From pubs to clubs to City Hall, Obama-mania sweeps Downtown
By Albert Amateau, Candida L. Figueroa, Josh Rogers and Lincoln Anderson
It was all Obama on Tuesday morning when gatherings celebrating the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States flourished in Downtown Manhattan.
In local bars and restaurants and in public places — outdoors on Wall St. and in Foley Square and indoors in City Hall — the inauguration televised from Washington attracted capacity crowds of viewers.
About 1,000 people, who responded to the open invitation last month from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, filled the Council Chamber and its balcony, the Committee Room, the Red Room and the Council Lounge. Some even found space in a niche at the side of the staircase off the rotunda and sat on the floor watching a small television. An overflow area at the Council office building at 250 Broadway was also jammed.
The e-mail responses to the Dec. 22 open invitation were overwhelming.
“We had over 2,000 by New Year’s and we had to e-mail our regrets to more than half of them,” said Shirley Limongi, a Council staff member.
“At other events, we get about half the people who R.S.V.P. to invitations,” said Anthony Hogrebe, a Council press aide. “It looks like everybody who replied to this one came to this one.”
City Hall was scheduled to open at 9:30 a.m. for the 11 a.m. inauguration in Washington, D.C., and despite temperatures in the 20s, people began queuing at the entrance to City Hall nearly two hours earlier.
“We got here at 8 o’clock to get the place ready and there were people on line already. The early birds must have been there since 7:30,” said a City Hall employee.
By 9:30 a.m. the queue of people from all over town was two blocks long. Accompanied by a friend from the Upper West Side, John Chaloner, a Village resident for 30 years, arrived to join the throng.
“Of course I voted for Barack Obama — twice,” he said.
Shrugging off the subfreezing temperature were a group of 16-year-old boys and girls from the Bronx, who got their confirmation tickets to the City Hall event from their local YMCA. Ruben Diaz, a Cardinal Hayes High School student, said he was there to mark a historic event.
“It’s probably the most historic event in my life,” he said.
Irene Kaufman, a leader in the Green-wich Village-based Public School Political Action Committee, was celebrating the historic occasion at City Hall with her son Evan, 10, and her daughter Dora, 7.
As the Council Chamber filled beyond the regular seating area, City Hall employees put out extra rows of folding chairs for the surging crowd, half of which appeared to be elementary and high school students.
They chanted O-BAM-A! along with the audience televised from Washington. They cheered when the presidential children, Malia and Sasha, appeared. They even cheered when George W. Bush appeared. Bill and Hillary Clinton got a great reception in City Hall. But it was a long, standing ovation when Barack Obama came on the screen.
Up front were 45 sixth-grade girls from the University Settlement School at 220 Henry St. with their teachers, Jennifer Longley and Elizabeth Ingwes.
“They studied the election in depth,” said Hannah Kuselmen, an administrator at the school.
Captain Brenda Berkman, who retired two years ago after 25 years in the city Fire Department, came to City Hall to celebrate a historic event.
“It’s a great day for our country,” she said. “I’m grateful to Chris Quinn for bringing all these people together. It’s an honor to be here.”
Berkman is no stranger to historic events. She was the plaintiff in the federal lawsuit in the 1970s that forced the New York Fire Department to admit qualified women applicants.
Quinn, who was in Washington for the inauguration, sent a televised welcome to “the seat of city government” to the gathering at City Hall.
“We knew there’d be a lot of New Yorkers who care about their government and have great enthusiasm for Barack Obama, and that’s why we pulled them all together in City Hall,” Quinn said. “We hope you have a great time, and for those of you who are here for the first time, come back.”
After the inauguration, Councilmember Domenic Recchia, of Brooklyn, welcomed the crowd, and Councilmember G. Oliver Koppell, of the Bronx, remarked on how fitting it was that the inauguration of the first African-American president was taking place just after the day dedicated to Martin Luther King and his struggle for racial equality.
In Hudson Square, about 100 people ducked into the Emerald Pub on Spring St. to watch with a handful of drinkers. The crowd, almost entirely white, jammed the area around the bar where the flat-screen TV was visible.
There were hearty laughs at light moments and silence when Obama took the oath and spoke to the world.
One bar regular raised a glass of beer after Obama was sworn in, but another was not moved.
“It’ll be business as usual as soon as he gets in,” the skeptic said.
The rest of the crowd clapped and cheered at key moments like when the new president said America would promote peace and was “ready to lead once more.”
At Lola, the embattled soul-food and R&B restaurant on Watts St., which has fought Soho residents over its liquor license and live music, a small crowd — both black and white — gathered to watch history over Cajun delicacies like crawfish étouffé.
The romantically furnished dining room featured inspirational, civil-rights-themed sayings painted along the walls just above the banquettes. Echoing the idea of how a black man could become president in a country where slavery once prevailed, one aphorism on the wall noted that “evil doers” may prevail for a while — but that, in the end, right will always win out.
“So cool,” someone said admiringly at the first glimpse of a poised Obama striding onto the Capitol Building’s balcony, as he was introduced as “Barack H. Obama.”
“Yay!” the diners cheered.
There were occasionally euphoric giggles, such as once when the camera caught Obama cocking his chin up, looking dignified and presidential, yet also clearly relishing the proceedings.
The swearing-in drew more cheers, as did poignant parts of the new president’s speech, such as when he spoke of the need to “begin the work of remaking America.” The young waiters whooped as they walked to and fro with dishes.
Afterward, Gayle Patrick-Odeen, co-owner of Lola with her husband, Tom, compared the themes of unity and compassion in Obama’s speech — and the very meaning of his historic victory — to Lola’s plight. They felt Lola had been “prejudged” by the overwhelmingly white Soho community, that racism fueled the early opposition.
Yet, she noted, they’ve abided by their pledge not to operate the place as a loud nightclub. Still, they’re struggling to emerge from bankruptcy after three and a half years of neighbors’ resistance, including a lawsuit.
“I just pray the people paid attention,” Patrick-Odeen said of Obama’s words. “That people will not be judged prematurely. That you’ll be able to work with people. America was built with the hands of entrepreneurs.
“There’s a glimmer of hope” the restaurant will survive, she said. “I’m still a believer. I still have faith.”
In front of Federal Hall at the corner of Wall and Nassau Sts., the crowd didn’t seem bothered by the 26-degree temperature. All attention was focused on Obama’s inauguration speech.
“The only historical event I had seen before today was Sept. 11, so I feel blessed to have a happier memory to tell my kids,” said Dana Karington, 22, a visitor from Philadelphia holding her 2-year-old son.
“I know that Obama is going to bring a lot of progress to homelessness and healthcare in America,” said Michael Kris, 44, a homeless man, who keeps his shirts and slacks in a shopping cart that he drags around Lower Manhattan. “I would rather be listening to him in the cold, than warming up somewhere else.”
Kris, who said he has been living on the streets for 10 years, was sporting an “Obama 08” T-shirt, hat, button and gloves.
“Obama brings the best out of people ’cause he makes everybody feel like they’re somebody,” he said.
Looking through the glass doors of Trinity Church, where the pews were full of people watching the inauguration live stream, Carrie Kran, 26, from Michigan said, “It’s amazing and exciting to be part of the crowd.”
Joining her was her friend Sezin Zanagar, 32, who came from Turkey to the United States four and half years ago.
“This moment has made me reflect on my experience immigrating here,” Zanagar said. “Bush’s inauguration wasn’t as happy as today.”