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For Obama swear-ins, '09 and '13 were a tale of two Harlems

This plaza at the Powell State Office Building

This plaza at the Powell State Office Building was jammed with people watching the 2009 ceremony. (Credit: Dan Janison)

Four years ago, the plaza outside the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem was jammed with thousands of people shouting, cheering and chanting Barack Obama's name. They waved flags and hoisted homemade signs and posters in the freezing cold as they watched this president sworn in for the first time on jumbo screens with giant sound systems.

For his second inauguration, the hoopla and the people and cameras and equipment were gone, the plaza quiet and empty, the office building locked up, in the center of a neighborhood that has long symbolized New York City's African-American life. Maybe this was because it was a second term, or his second swearing-in in two days. Maybe it was just the normal quiet of a holiday. Or maybe the freshness and promise and novelty of the whole thing had worn off.

"I'm sad. This doesn't even feel like a holiday," said James Hilbert, who lives nearby off Malcolm X Boulevard. "Because of Martin Luther King and a lot of others, we do have a black president. But we are not even close as a society to where we should be.

"There's a false sense of protection," Hilbert surmised, "a false sense that people have that everything is OK."

Hilbert happened to be standing steps away from a giant statue of Powell inscribed with a quote: "Press forward at all times, climbing toward that higher ground of the harmonious society that shapes the laws of man to the laws of God."

Up the block, around 11:30 a.m., doors to the landmark Apollo Theater were locked. Two women, bundled up, wondered aloud what time they could come to buy tickets for a future event.

Nearby, Margerine Hamilton was setting up a sidewalk table to peddle souvenir items that included calendars with photos of King, Malcolm X, and Obama, placed side by side. It was less than half an hour before the president would take the oath, and Hamilton unwrapped her wares amid a weekday's typical foot traffic.

"Today is a blessing," she said with a Jamaican lilt. "For me, I'm happy that I'm alive and celebrating Martin's birthday."

She pointed to one of her Obama photos and said: "I pray for him every day."

She added: "He was not the second Moses going into the White House, though a lot of people thought that. Rome was not built in a day and God did not make the world in a day. I have hope for his second term."

Over at Sylvia's Restaurant, another Harlem landmark, three generations of a family sat around a table near the bar above which Obama could be seen speaking on a small television screen. There was a low murmur of chitchat from other patrons and a stereo thumped music from an adjoining structure while Obama said: "And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice . . . "

After the speech, a young man working near the bar told another staffer that he hadn't realized that after a re-election comes another swearing-in, and "you go through that all over again."

Seeing Obama sworn in -- while far from an unpleasant occasion in this part of town -- just wasn't going to amount to anywhere near the big deal it was the last time.

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