By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — A party-like atmosphere reigned outside the Red Rooster Harlem Tuesday even as metal barriers lined the streets, extra police cars rolled through the area and helicopters hovered above for President Barack Obama's arrival.
The president's car entered through a tent at the back of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant about 6 p.m., depriving visitors who had waited hours in the cold of even a glimpse of Obama.
About 50 people, including Harlem Rep. Charlie Rangel, were arrayed at the six tables for the $30,800 per plate fundraiser which was expected to raise $1.5 million.
In brief remarks, Obama thanked Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine who introduced the president.
Obama said it was a "challenging time."
"I could not do what I do ... if I didn't know that I have a lot of people rooting for me, a lot of people supporting me," the president said.
"I want you each of you to know that I'm very very grateful for your friendship," Obama said.
By 8:30 p.m., Obama was in the presidential limousine and heading just half an avenue away to an invitation-only "thank you" reception at the Studio Museum in Harlem led by a full police motorcade.
Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson tweeted "thanks to sylvia and chez lucienne for being fantastic neigbours yesterday was a great night," Wednesday morning.
Crowds who had waited at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue behind metal barriers for hours began cheering when they saw the motorcade emerge from the tent. They screamed even louder when Obama's limousine passed.
James Wade, 65, who retired from a security company, said he would have loved to get a closer look at Obama but understood the security measures. He said people who were upset about being inconvenienced should be more understanding.
"If something happened to him, people would complain that they didn't protect him," Wade said.
"I wanted to get closer but they boxed me in," said Freddie Bush, 75, a retired construction worker who waited at 125th Street and Lenox for two hours. "There's a lot of money in Harlem tonight."
Sherri Culpepper, 51, who is in marketing and public relations, brought her daughter Bria, 17, a big fan of the Obama family, to try and catch a glimpse of the president.
"She's written many letters to the White House and has gotten a couple of replies so I couldn't have the president come this close and not attempt to get a look," said Culpepper. "She wanted to go inside and eat but I explained to her that each plate cost $30,800 and that wasn't in my budget."
Bria Culpepper said she plans to vote for the president when he runs for re-election next year but wanted to support him now.
"I don't like how everyone blames him for everything," she said.
Obama's visit to Harlem capped a busy day in Manhattan. Earlier Obama attended the New York City Science and Engineering Fair at the Natural History Museum's Milstein Hall of Ocean with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Afterward, he spoke at a United Nations ceremony to dedicate a building to Ronald H. Brown, the former Secretary of Commerce who was killed in a plane crash in Croatia in 1996. Brown was raised in Harlem.
All afternoon, an ever-growing crowd had swelled in front of the restaurant in anticipation of the president's arrival for a $30,000 per head fundraiser.
Freddy Lebron and Don Jones said they weren't overjoyed when their bosses at Liberty taxes had them wear Statue of Liberty outfits and hand out fliers in front of the famed eatery, but both said they were thrilled Obama was coming to the neighborhood.
"He's supposed to come here. Harlem and New York are like the capital of the world. There's a lot of history here," said Lebron.
"I voted for him and most of the people out here voted for Obama so it's good to see him here," added Jones.
Many Harlem residents said they were excited that Obama was coming and brushed off criticism by some that the $30,800 per head affair was too much for a community that still struggles with the effects of poverty.
"This ain't got nothing to do with Harlem," said comedian and Harlem resident Paul Mooney, who wrote for Richard Pryor and the Dave Chappelle on "Chappelle's Show." "This is about white folks with money and black folks with money and Obama should get it. He should have a $30,000 fundraiser here every night."
But Vincon Mindo, a 23-year-old retail worker carrying a sign protesting U.S. involvement in Libya, disagreed.
"This is more than ridiculous. You have people that make $25,000 a year in this neighborhood and he's eating off of a $30,000 plate," Mindo said, adding that he believed Obama hadn't lived up to his campaign promises.
At Kaarta Imports and Exports on 125th Street, a store that sells African garments, cloth and jewelry, Karen McBroom defended Obama, saying he faces more criticism than other presidents for his every move.
"He tries so hard but he goes through so many trials and tribulations," said the 48-year old, who was just laid off from her retail job. "Harlem is about the people. We went through a lot of struggle so he can get to where he is."
Salif Tounkara, 23, a clerk at the store, agreed.
"He's showing love to the 'hood," Tounkara said. "If he's involved with something that costs $30,000 for a plate of food there's a reason. He's using it to get re-elected so he can create something better."
Others, like Mitchell Rose, 42, a designer, came from Valley Stream, N.Y. to try to get the president to sign a pair of the sneakers from the line he designed in his honor. Rose also designed a sport underwear line called "First Lady O" in honor of Michelle Obama.
"Maybe we can take the proceeds and put them into a fund to help out the urban community," Rose said, explaining what his business pitch to Obama would be. "I don't think I'm going to get close to him but anything is possible. I can dream."
In front of Red Rooster, Serano LeGrand 57, a building superintendent, said he came from Brooklyn hoping to get a glimpse of the president.
"I came all the way here because i think he is doing a good job and deserves support," LeGrand said as he held a photo of Obama and an American flag. He brushed off criticism of the affair.
"He can't solve every problem," he said. "What makes him different from any other president? He's raising money for re-election, so that's a beautiful thing."