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On Landmark Day, Harlem Goes To D.C.

Complete Inaugural Coverage

WASHINGTON -- After more than a year of neighborhood canvassing, working the phones and registering voters, volunteers at Harlem4Obama have traveled a long journey.
(Courtesy Chet Whye, Harlem4Obama)
Now the grassroots organization is taking one last journey together - a bus ride from Harlem to the nation's capital. The bus, carrying 56 volunteers and other locals, pulled out from just outside the neighborhood's famous Lenox Lounge on 125th Street at 1:45 am - just in time to get to D.C. for Barack Obama's inauguration.

The volunteers are exuberant - but also reflective. Alima Berkoun, an immigrant who has lived in Harlem for 13 years, remembers months of sleeping on floors, working 18-hour days and ultimately winning over a wary neighborhood.

"It didn't happen overnight. It was very challenging in the beginning, especially in Harlem," she said. "We had to overcome this skepticism and this doubt ... that there could ever be a black president. It's a lesson that there's 'no never.'"

(Photo courtesy Chet Whye)
Chet Whye, left, the organization's campaign director, said Mr. Obama's rise came at just the right time for a community undergoing dramatic changes. The evolving gentrification and rising skyscrapers were stoking uncertainty among residents in the symbolic capital of black culture. That apprehension was eventually quelled by the president-elect's message.

"People were conflicted," he said. "Barack helped us realize as a changing community that we can find this common ground... He made us work on it. So Harlem feels a connection to him that's very emotional."

A different kind of emotion, however, is permeating the trip to D.C. On the eve of the presidential election, volunteer Erica Strand was struck by a car and seriously injured in New York. Strand, who slept on floors in New Hampshire and Iowa on behalf of Harlem4Obama, is recovering but wasn't able to attend the inauguration. "She symbolizes the dedication of the campaign," said Berkoun.

But with the long campaign road in their rear view mirror, the volunteers are finally relishing the path to Mr. Obama's crowning moment.

"It's magical," said Berkoun, who secured a coveted ticket to Mr. Obama's swearing-in ceremony. "I feel like nothing was in vain and nothing could stop us now."

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