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People Party in Harlem Streets as Obama Declared Victor

By Jeff Mays | November 7, 2012 6:54am

HARLEM — At first, the mostly African-American crowd at Londel's restaurant on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem was nervous. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had the lead in electoral votes over President Barack Obama.

But as the tide began to turn Tuesday night and Obama won more states, the mood began to shift.

A chant of "Let's go Barry," Obama's former nickname, broke out when the momentum began to shift. When a clip of Obama yelling "Fired up!" came on CNN, the crowd replied: "Yeah."

Finally, hundreds of people at the restaurant erupted into cheers and tears when Obama was declared the winner in his reelection bid. The once tense crowd broke into dance. The song "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" played as people hugged one another as if they were long lost relatives.

"Four years is not enough. To make a difference you need eight years," said Christine Staggers, 36 a paralegal.

Cathy Robertson, 47, a teacher and media specialist, said she was "overwhelmed."

"My heart is full," she said. "He deserves a second term because his first term was all about cleanup. This second term will give him a chance to really show what he can do."

Harlem residents danced in the street when Obama won in 2008, making him the first black man elected to his country's highest office. This time around, the excitement level wasn't the same.

Tau Battice, 39, an English professor at City College, had come to 125th Street, the site of a jubilant celebration after Obama's 2008 victory, hoping to join major celebrations.

Instead, he saw  several police officers standing around with nothing to do. The steel barriers used for crowd control four years ago were stacked together, unused.

"The energy doesn't compare," Battice said. "With Obama, there might have been a certain messianic hope. A lot of people might be disappointed."

It wasn't until after the networks began calling the president's victory shortly after 11 p.m. that a small crowd began gathering on 125th Street, yelling and screaming. Cars honked their horns as the crowd grew steadily, some climbing atop a yellow cab to rejoice.

"It's been slow progress but at least we are making some progress," said Maria Ross, 47, an administrator who came out to celebrate.

Ross said the victory was hard fought. From dawn until long after dark on Tuesday, voters across the district lined up at the polls, often waiting hours to cast their ballots.

At P.S. 175 on 134th Street, the line stretched out of the gym and into the hallway as the hour ticked closer to 9 p.m. when the polls closed. Frustration began to swell.

But Jack Dickson, 50, a medical records clerk, said he'd stand in line all night if he had to in order to vote.

"This is history again. We will never see a black man elected again in our lifetime," said Dickson.

Many Harlem voters said early Tuesday they had a good feeling about Obama's chances.

"I don't even follow politics because it's just a lot of spectacle," said Jonathan Espinal, 23, a lifeguard and student who said he was voting for the first time at the Harlem River Houses polling place on 152nd Street, where the line stretched out the door and down the block.

"I'm voting for Obama because the Republican candidate doesn't have any substance," he said.

Teacher and filmmaker Shila Jones said she had no choice but to wait because she felt the need to vote for Obama because of his stance on issues, including education.

"I have 28 students in my class. Mitt Romney doesn't care about class size, so he can't get my vote," said Jones.

She added,"If Romney wins, it's goodbye to Planned Parenthood."

At a watch party at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture earlier in the evening, a majority of participants said they noticed the same or a larger turnout at the polls.

"I'm sure Mitt Romney is not a bad person," said Brett Leonard, 44, who works in ad sales. "But there will be a lot of dissatisfaction in Harlem if Obama doesn't win."

Schomburg Director Khalil Gibran Muhammad said "tonight is the last night we get to pontificate about the possibilities of a second black presidency."

Political Consultant Basil Smikle agreed. Before the polls closed, Smikle said that whether Obama got re-elected or not would say a lot about this country and race relations.

"if Obama wins, it says he did a good enough job, even if voters aren't 100 percent satisfied with him, to give him another four years to finish the job," said Smikle.

"If he loses, it says that people had high, maybe unrealistically high expectations for the first African-American president."

Smikle also said an Obama loss might result in an entire block of voters losing interest in the process.

"Among African-Americans there will be a large amount of anger and disappointment. It could disenfranchise a lot of minorities concerned about how racial concerns may have undermined Obama," he said.

Dickson, sporting a t-shirt that showed Obama and his family, said he would be very upset if Obama lost because it wasn't fair to completely blame Obama for all the country's problem. He cited the state of the economy.

"Obama can't get me a job," he said.

"it's the private sector's fault. If these companies would spend a little money and hire just one or two workers, the unemployment rate would go down.

"Obama can't do it all by himself."