Monday, January 26, 2009

The end of the hajj, and this blog

Now that the Inauguration is behind us, I am shuttering this blog to turn my attention to new blogs and new stories. I greatly enjoyed reporting this story, and saw my work appear in several places:

  • Wave Journey: Obama Fever Grips DC Shop Owners
  • The Orange County Register: Cold, crowds and lack of cash dampen inaugural tourism
  • The Monetization of Obama [SLIDESHOW]
  • The New Black (an online magazine): Second Thoughts on Obama's Inauguration
  • Epoch Times: Second Thoughts [PDF]
  • WNYC: Inauguration Prep
  • Pavement Pieces: Various articles

  • On the day of the Inauguration, I was among the crowds standing near the Washington Monument. As soon as the inaugural address ended, I hightailed it back to my friends' apartment and out of the cold. We flipped on the television to watch footage of the congressional lunch and parade. As CNN showed aerial footage of the massive crowd assembled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., one broadcaster suggested that a gathering of this size is usually seen only in Saudi Arabia.

    It was not the first time CNN compared the inaugural trek to the nation’s capitol to the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. In a CNN online report filed on January 17, Zain Verjee compared the size and preparation of the political pilgrimage to the Muslim religious event, which is a pillar of Islam and done to demonstrate one’s submission to Allah.

    For many inaugural pilgrims who had come from across the country and the globe, the day ended in the parking lot for charter buses outside of RFK stadium in Southeast D.C. One bus, surrounded by military officers, police cars, and black SUVs with flashing lights, had sacrificed its bumper to a light pole. Weary inauguration-goers shopped for last-minute souvenirs at a stand with a “$3 and under blowout,” selling myriad t-shirts, pins, calendars, and books, all featuring Obama’s now iconic image.

    A small band of 47 political pilgrims boarded a charter bus bound for New York City on Tuesday night. During the five-hour journey—which included a bomb scare that re-routed them from the New Jersey turnpike—the passengers napped, watched a “Barack Obama” biography played over the bus media system, and talked softly on cell phones to friends and relatives about the events of the day. The tour operators passed out bottles of water, canned iced tea, Doritos, Cheetos, Lay’s potato chips, and Cracker Jacks.

    The inaugural crowd, estimated to number 1.5 million, was smaller than the three-million-person crowd drawn to Mecca last year, but the sentiments of the participants echoed the hajj experience. Many were frustrated by the crowds, the cold, and the handling of lines and security, but elated at being part of the historical event.

    “The hardship was part of being there. It was something you just had to endure. It was not meant to be a luxurious journey,” said John McDonagh, 52, an Irish native who has lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. for the last 13 years. “It was like seeing the pope in Dublin in 1979.”

    Ron Ng, 46, complained about the two hours it took to take the shuttle from the parking lot to the Mall, inept directions from National Guardsman, and the long lines at the Metro stations that forced him to walk the three miles back to the bus. “These unfortunate incidents marred a perfect day, a day I’ve been looking forward to for eight years,” said Ng. “It was a day of waiting in lines, waiting on answers. But when it mattered, I got the answer I wanted.”

    People started getting agitated in the hours leading up to the noon inaugural address, said tour organizer Neal Kellman of SolidPlanIt, who was part of the shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-chest crowd in the middle of the National Mall. “There was some anger in the crowd. People started getting pushy. There were some fingers pointed in the face,” said Kellman.

    But when Obama appeared on the jumbotrons, the crowd calmed. “You could hear a whisper. A pin drop,” said Kellman. “It was that quiet.”

    Some pilgrims were celebrating Bacchus as well as Obama. “When I got back to the bus, this one guy was passed out, sleeping in the luggage area under the bus, even though the bus was unlocked,” said Kellman.

    The under-bus napper, who wished to remain anonymous, is a public school teacher from Hartford, Conn.; he drank gin from a Poland Springs water bottle throughout the day. “It was a very emotional day. I was crying all over myself during Obama’s speech,” he said.

    He and his friend, Mark H., 32, an environmental scientist, also from Hartford, were not bothered by the inconveniences of the day. “It’s the first time in my life that I’ve backed a winner. I’ve been passionate about many politicians, but I didn’t think someone I was passionate about would ever actually win,” said Mark H., who has supported Ralph Nader and Howard Dean in the past.

    Of the pilgrimage experience, Mark H. said, “You have to be tough. Suffer a little bit. It’s like a rock festival. But I’ve never been to a concert where everything lived up to my expectations. But this did.”

    Wednesday, January 21, 2009

    Inaugural Crowd Estimated to be 1.5 Million

    Crowd-counting is always an inaccurate science, but the San Jose Mercury News is reporting that 1.5 million were estimated to have been on the Mall for the inauguration.

    I talked to many attendees while on a bus returning to New York on Tuesday night. The general consensus was happiness at having attended, but some frustration with how D.C. handled the shuttle service to the charter bus parking lot at RFK stadium and the security for ticket-holders--tickets were checked after security lines, so many non-ticket holders held up security lines, only to be turned back.

    Overall, people were elated and happy to say they were part of such a historical event.

    I recently wrote a piece on D.C. shop owners capitalizing on the crowds. Here's the intro:

    The Whole Foods on P Street had stocked more champagne for inaugural weekend than it had for New Year’s Eve.

    The upscale grocer was also carrying special beers in honor of (then) President-elect Barack Obama’s home states, including 312 wheat ale from Chicago’s Goose Island brewery and Pipeline Porter coffee beer from Hawaii’s Kona Brewing Company. The store also stocked up on Heileman’s Old Style beer.

    “Obama’s known to drink it,” said Whole Food’s specialty team member Scott Witzlsteiner.

    Continue reading this article

    Obama's inauguration: Record crowd gathers on Mall to celebrate 'achievement for the nation' [San Jose Mercury News]
    Obama Fever Grips DC Shop Owners (story and slideshow) [NYU Livewire]

    Tuesday, January 20, 2009

    A Range of Reactions

    I'm watching CNN broadcast from the Mall, and I better get moving because it's filling up fast. My friends are I debating whether to line up along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route or to go for a jumbotron near the Washington monument.

    I started spotting more people in town for the Inauguration yesterday-- running into many of them on the Metro. Easily spotted, they wear Obama pins, carry bags full of Obama souvenirs, and have a kind of starry-eyed excitement about them.

    Some have traveled very far to be here. I talked to a barber who has cut the hair of a South African and an Irish broadcaster. I met two Irish women in New York who are in the crowds today. I wrote about their desire to see "O'bama" inaugurated on Pavement Pieces.

    Of course, there's a sizable conservative contingent who is not excited. The managing editor of the American Spectator jetted out of town to flee the excitement and spend the week in Miami. He wrote this post on inaugural hypocrisy before he left and pointed me to this editorial in the Washington Post: It's Your Party, And I'll Cry If I Want To.

    Time to bundle up and head to the Mall. See you under the next administration!

    Inaugural Hypocrisy [American Spectator]
    It's Your Party, And I'll Cry If I Want To [The Washington Post]

    Monday, January 19, 2009

    How many charter buses will be D.C.-bound today?

    At right is SolidPlanIt's Neal Kellman handing out fliers in Park Slope for his Inaugural charter bus trip to D.C. When I spoke with him at the beginning of the month for this story, he was worried about filling his then half-full bus. But his trip has since experienced a surge in demand. "Not full yet, but I'm down to 2 rooms and a bunch of inquiries," Kellman wrote in an e-mail.

    [UPDATE (10:40 a.m.): Kellman just e-mailed me to say, "I'm sold out and I was able to snag an extra room at the hotel and sell it. So if we're looking at what I considered max capacity, I'm at about 105%. I have 21 rooms, 46 people.")

    The bus company from which Kellman rented his bus says he's one lucky tour operator. Brooklyn-based Best Trails & Travel experienced strong demand for bus rentals right after the election, but it dropped off a few weeks later. The company originally rented out 25 of its half-million dollar, luxury buses for trips from New York to D.C., but over the last three weeks, 12 of those buses were canceled.

    Best Trails & Travel's Rosie says that other bus company affiliates are having the same problems. "I don't know of one who sold out their buses," she said.

    While D.C. originally expected 10,000 charter buses to roll into town, the Washington Post reports that just 3,000 have registered for parking spots so far. And WDBJ7 claims it's even less, writing that just 2,700 buses were registered as of Friday.

    More proof that there are far fewer people coming to D.C. this Tuesday than originally predicted? Or are there a whole lot of unregistered buses en route to D.C.? We'll find out soon enough. The Big Day is almost upon us.

    Charter Bus Watch: 3,000 Registered So Far [Washington Post]

    Inaugural Events in New York City: Columbia University and NYU

    If you'll be in New York on inaugural Tuesday, and want to watch the ceremony in an academic setting, here's some info on events at Columbia and New York University.

    You can go uptown to Columbia University and watch from the location where Barack Obama spent some of his undergraduate years. My Columbia Journalism School roommate informs me that Columbia will be holding an outside screening to simulate the National Mall experience. From the Columbia website:

    Presidential Inauguration Viewing
    Date: January 20, 2009 from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm EST
    Location: Columbia University Morningside Campus Low Memorial Library, Plaza

    President Lee C. Bollinger invites the Columbia University community to join together in watching the historic Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama (CC'83).

    While other notable Columbians Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower have served in the nation's highest office, this non-partisan event will mark the swearing-in of the first Columbia graduate as President of the United States.

    A "Jumbo Tron" screen will show the inauguration live on Low Library Plaza beginning at approximately 11:00 a.m.

    The downtown kids at New York University will have warm and cozy environs for watching. New York University is screening the noon ceremony at the following locations:

  • NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place
  • The Kimmel Center for University Life, 60 Washington Square South, Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, 4th Floor
  • College of Arts and Science, The Silver Center, 100 Washington Square East, Hemmerdinger Hall and Silverstein Lounge
  • NYU School of Law, Vanderbilt Hall, 40 Washington Square South, Greenberg Lounge and Tishman Auditorium
  • Sunday, January 18, 2009

    The Woodstock of Washington: The "We are One" Inaugural Concert at the Lincoln Memorial

    Though much of D.C. feels like business as usual in terms of the crowd levels, that was not the case on the National Mall today. What must have been hundreds of thousands of people poured through gates on Constitution and Independence Avenues to watch a series of musicians and speakers at the Lincoln memorial.

    To get a prime spot around the reflecting pool, you had to get there quite early. On the chilly, gray, overcast day, we chose to arrive at 2 p.m., just before the concert's 2:30 p.m. start time. We stood near the Washington monument and watched on one of many big screens.

    The highlights:
  • Bruce Springsteen starting off the concert with "The Rising"
  • Garth Brooks getting the crowd dancing and singing with renditions of "American Pie" and "Shout" (Update: The Isley Brothers version, not the one by Tears for Fears)
  • U2 singing "In the Name of Love" on the stage where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech

    The low points:
  • The terrible poetry reading by Tom Hanks. Laughably bad.
  • Challenger the Bald Eagle. I don't know who added this to the line-up, but it was very odd to see the eagle awkwardly flapping around while tethered to its holder's hand.
  • Not being able to get into the main Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool area because of the existence of just one heavy-duty security checkpoint.

    Some funny things:
  • When appeared with Herbie Hancock and Sheryl Crow to sing Bob Marley's "One Love," the man next to me yelled, "Yes, Wyclef!"
  • When Josh Groban appeared on stage, my friend asked who he was. I explained that he's an attractive young guy who sings fairly bland songs that old women like. A woman in her 60s who overheard me started laughing, and said, "I love him. Not old women. Seasoned women, my dear."
  • Everyone singing along with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen to the anti-capitalist anthem "This Land is My Your Land."

    Walking to the Lincoln memorial, I was struck by the dearth of music-themed goods. Today's concert featured Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bon Jovi, Beyonce, John Legend, Stevie Wonder, and many other huge names, but there was not a CD, rock & roll t-shirt, or musician-themed souvenir to be found. Everything is Obama, Obama, Obama. He is the rock star this weekend.

    Here are some photos from downtown today:

  • All Is Kind of Quiet on the D.C. Front

    Though two million people are expected to descend on D.C. for the Inauguration, things seem fairly quiet so far. I arrived in town on Friday night via the Bolt Bus-- a cheap bus that runs between D.C. and NYC, that has both electrical outlets and wireless internet. There were no traffic problems-- we made the trip in just four hours and fifteen minutes, including a rest stop.

    As I walked through the city, the cold streets were quiet and fairly empty. I spotted this desolate and seemingly desperate sign offering inauguration rentals. That market has gone bust. Thousands of Craigslist ads are still offering weekend housing and "last-minute inauguration deals."

    My friends and I ventured out to "Liberation Dance Party"-- a regular Friday night event at DC9--in the hopping U Street area. It was the same level of "hopping" as I remember from my many years in D.C.

    I spent Saturday wandering around the Logan Circle area. Though the brunch places on P Street seemed to have more out-of-towners than usual, they were not excessively crowded. We sat down immediately at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street at 10:30 a.m. in the morning. P Street's The Commissary, an inexpensive and popular brunch place among DCites, had a 30-minute wait at one p.m.

    My assessment: no evidence of the two million visitors yet. I expect they will take over the city on Monday. Honestly, I feel badly for all of the people coming. I think many are on charter bus tours that bring them into the city on Monday, and depart Tuesday. I would argue that the best events are on Sunday (the Lincoln Memorial concert) and Tuesday evening (the Inaugural Balls). Most visitors will miss these events, and spend most of their time in D.C. fighting for a cold spot along Pennsylvania Avenue Tuesday morning to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade.

    For those not here, here are some atmospheric photos. Choc-Obama bars:

    Carl's Barber Shop on P Street:

    Obama "O" Cupcakes at ACKC Chocolate on 14th Street: