New Yorkers celebrate change in D.C.

January 20, 2009 11:05:18 AM PST
From the streets of Harlem to the state capital, New Yorkers celebrated President Barack Obama's inauguration Thursday as a signal of hope, progress and, above all, unity. "There aren't words to express it," said Grace Pessoa, 62, a Jamaica-born data entry worker watching the swearing-in on TV at Sylvia's, a landmark Harlem restaurant.

Cheers, prayers and tears of emotion greeted the 44th president in Times Square, where hundreds of people gathered on a 27-degree day to watch the inauguration on a giant screen, and in a Brooklyn senior citizens' center where dozens of Caribbean immigrants marveled at an occasion some thought they would never see.

It became a live-TV lesson for schoolchildren around the state, including at the newly renamed Barack Obama Elementary School in Hempstead, on Long Island.

"As a young African-American lady, this means I can do anything," said Shan-Tel Himan, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Hackett Middle School in Albany. "Now I know that, 'Yes, you can.' This is a time you can look back at it and get the confidence you need."

Many observers said they felt the inauguration of the nation's first black president was uniting the nation as never before, and they suggested they were ready to heed his call to contribute to a nation grappling with recession, two wars and other challenges they acknowledged are bigger than any one man.

"I never thought the day would come that a black man would be in the White House, but wonders never cease. We are coming together - equality, one people, one nation, one destiny. We have this unity, and it is not only for the black people," said Eulalie Percival, 81, who came to the United States from Guyana in 1981.

She was among the 80 people who watched the ceremony at Fort Greene Senior Action Center in Brooklyn, on a 63-inch flat-screen television bought for the occasion.

"We are happy. Thank the Lord at last!" center director Jean Ward exclaimed. But, she added, "He cannot do it alone. We have to help him."

The aura of history stretched from the streets to the New York City skyline, where the Empire State Building was to display red, white and blue lights in a first-ever inaugural tribute, managers said.

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange paused at times to watch the inauguration ceremony and Obama's remarks. At the New York Police Department headquarters in downtown Manhattan, officers and civilian workers packed the press room to watch the event on TV and applauded as Obama took the oath of office.

Strangers hugged strangers and shook hands across the aisles in the City Council chambers at City Hall, where hundreds of citizens gathered. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and most other city elected officials were in Washington for the event.

"We heard not only notes of hope and history, but a tone of pragmatism that has the power to bring the country together, and move us forward, together," Bloomberg said in a statement.

Traffic slowed through Times Square as cab drivers got out to take cell phone pictures of people who had come there, in part, simply to enjoy the moment with others.

Among them was Camilo Nunoz, 19, an engineering student from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"We wanted to see the American people celebrate, so we came here to Times Square," Nunoz said. "I think the whole world is proud."

Kim Green, a substitute teacher watching the Times Square screen through tears, said it was "one of the proudest days of my life." Tonya Wilson, 47, an airline customer service representative, called it "a dream come true."

Added Leroy Brown, 59, an Internet DJ, said, "I feel a sense of contentment. God bless America to be alive to see this."

While the emphasis was on looking ahead, some also took an opportunity to bid a bitter farewell to President George W. Bush. When he appeared on television, several in the Times Square crowd began singing: "Na na na na, Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye."

Others, though, had their hearts fixed firmly on the future.

Ronell Gilbert, a postal supervisor, took her 12-year-old son, Brian, to Sylvia's for the occasion. His school had planned to watch the ceremony, but his mother wanted to experience it with him.

"I'm just elated to show him this," said Wilson, 36, who is black. "I'm just so happy it happened in my lifetime and in his."

Brian, a seventh-grader, said he never wanted to be president when he was younger.

"But now I know I could be if I wanted to be," he said. "Now I know it's possible."


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