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Harlem celebrates ‘remaking America’

Giselle Rodriguez stood watching a broadcast of President Barack Obama's inauguration, just a few yards away from the outdoor screen in front of the Harlem State Office Building on 125th Street. Her head was slightly bowed, and she held her left fist in the air while her right hand wiped tears from behind her sunglasses.

"[Obama] has restored my faith with his sincerity," said the 25-year-old, who attended the event after taking a break from her administrative job at Workforce1, an organization that helps people find work. "I see and feel what Americans are going through, how people without jobs are struggling. To have a president that's passionate about making a difference and honest about the fact that it won't happen overnight is inspiring."

Rodriguez was one of thousands of people in Harlem — America's first black cultural capital — who braved the 28-degree weather to experience Obama's inauguration. People congregated at watch parties held in community centers, beauty salons, universities, restaurants and theaters to witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president. And tonight, many establishments plan to throw local balls to celebrate.

A humble exuberance But in place of the electrifying revelry that pulsed through Harlem on election night, this Tuesday saw a more muted and humble exuberance. "This is a surreal moment," said Harlem native and dental-assisting student Lashonda Samuel, 26, who rushed from her classes at the Mandl School to catch the broadcast of President Obama's speech. "My favorite part was when he told world leaders that 'we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist' — that's why I love Obama, because he makes me so proud and encourages all of us to work together."

While some tried to catch a piece of the action on their lunch breaks, others took the day off from work and took their kids out of school to watch the inauguration.

Leetha James, a 54-year-old office manager, brought her 11-year-old granddaughter, Crystal, to the "Inauguration of a Dream" watch party that was organized by Democracy Prep Charter School and held at the Harlem Armory.

"This is history happening right now. This is what kids will be reading about years from now," she said. "I want my granddaughter to remember what it was like, so that she can pass that feeling on to her kids, and their kids."

More than 3,500 New York City public school students, teachers and community members gathered at the Harlem Armory, sitting at packed tables and bleachers to watch the inauguration on three jumbo screens.

"The election, the inauguration, it's all been incorporated into our curriculum," said Carl Adams, a teacher at PS 125, which sent 60 fifth- and sixth-graders to the event. "We wanted the kids to witness this historic event with other kids. We hope that they can take the experience of seeing Barack Obama on TV and grow from it — to reinforce to them that anything is possible."

Every mention of "Obama" on the news brought students to their feet as they cheered loudly and waved a sea of American flags and posters in support of Obama.

"I couldn't wait to see the inauguration," said 11-year-old Gabrielle Gary, who along with other kids designed signs that read "We love you Obama." "I begged my mom to borrow her phone so I could take pictures to remember this," said Gary.

‘A piece of history’ For those who couldn't get out of work or school to attend the watch parties, many restaurants and bars in the area will be celebrating on a lighter note this evening. At MoBay restaurant on 125th Street, patrons can order Obama-inspired cocktails such as "The Change," "The First Lady," "44th" and, of course, the "Obamatini." The restaurant is also featuring dinner specials with an Obama kick. Chili-bama, anyone?

"Today should be a national holiday, we're telling people that they should leave work and party with us," said Sheron Barnes, CEO of MoBay. "We're in a recession — things can't get much worse, so we should celebrate them getting better with our new president!"

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A student stands and cheers while watching the inauguration speeches which were broadcast at the Harlem Armory in New York City.

Local unofficial inaugural balls are also being held in Harlem for people who couldn't make it to Washington, offering partygoers the chance to dress up in their finest attire in honor of the new president.

The National Black Theatre on Fifth Avenue and 126th Street is hosting the Harlem People's Inaugural Ball, and Tony Award-nominee Brenda Braxton will host a gala at her upscale men's salon BBraxton on Fifth Avenue and 116th Street.

For Giselle Rodriguez, who was so moved by the inauguration, the festivities in Harlem are a sign of what's to come.

"I was a piece of history today," she said. "To observe Martin Luther King Day yesterday and then to finally see Barack Obama inaugurated — for me, this is a feeling that is unexplainable. Even Obama uses the word 'us,' not 'I' — we're in this together, and that's why everyone celebrates this together."